Thursday, February 2, 2012

Seeking Integration – an Economic Development Imperative

By Jonathan Miller, Project Associate. 

The Wall Street Journal ran an article on January 31st (“Segregation Hits Historic Low”) that addressed a pattern of increasing black-white integration in American cities since 1970. Using a common measure called the dissimilarity index, the authors measured how evenly or unevenly dispersed African Americans and whites were distributed in a given city. The index measures the percentage of one group (e.g. African Americans) that would need to move neighborhoods to create an equal dispersion among the two groups. Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston were the most integrated cities and Atlanta, while not the most integrated, showed significant gains in integrating neighborhoods.

Since the dissimilarity index can be used for any demographic dichotomy, and since I learned the technique in grad school (and thus am worthy of being published in the WSJ), I decided to do my own short-hand investigation and see whether other groups were becoming less segregated. I looked at patterns in the core 10 counties of Atlanta for Hispanics v. non-Hispanics, those with a bachelor’s degree and higher v. those without, and those in poverty v. not in poverty, between 2000 and 2010.

Index scale: 0 to 100; 0 is an even distribution (perfectly integrated) and 100 is perfect separation, everyone in the group would have to move. For example a score of 75 indicates that 75 percent of the group would have to move neighborhoods to reach perfect integration.


Perhaps most notable is that in 2010 each of the previous demographic categories shows a higher degree of segregation, than the figure of racial segregation (African American v. whites) reported for Atlanta in the same year (score of 54.1). While it’s no surprise that segregation is not exclusively synonymous with race, it’s interesting to see the degree to which segregation does still exist for groups of people not necessarily in the crosshairs of segregation study. Of course, segregation for these groups does not occur in a vacuum, but is impacted by housing prices, income, and self-sorting. It is encouraging to see decreases in segregation across the board, but it will be quite a while before this is a non-issue.

As economic development is ultimately a war for the best talent, it is increasingly important to understand what draws and what will retain young people. As young educated professionals can decide where they want to live first, and then find a job, it is vital to ensure that activity centers are vibrant, diverse, and open. High levels of segregation, along a variety of demographic attributes, works against creating the best and most desirable kinds of places.