Is segregation really bad for everyone?



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A post on the Atlantic Cities blog asserts that "segregation is bad for everyone"—even for wealthy white suburbanites.

We know how segregation is bad for minorities, especially for African-Americans. It concentrates their poverty, resulting in dilapidated housing, more fires, lousy schools, more illness, and rampant violence. It leads to emergency rooms, jails, and premature burials.

The way it's bad for wealthy suburbanites, according to Atlantic Cities, is that it makes it harder for them to get wealthier.

The post, by Emily Badger, is well-meaning. Her contention is that it's difficult to lobby for eradicating segregation if doing so will benefit only poor minorities. Policies aimed at helping the poor are "no easy sell," she writes, and that's certainly true. What we need, she says, is evidence that we're all harmed by segregation.

And such evidence has arrived, she writes: a study of metro areas throughout the nation from 1980 through 2005 shows that regions high in segregation fared worse economically than less-segregated regions.

I read the study, which was published in March in the journal Urban Studies, and thought it was unconvincing. For one thing, the authors found what they set out to find. They noted that segregation impedes efforts to cooperate regionally to alleviate poverty, which therefore makes it "important to convince the non-poor that segregation adversely affects them too."

Yes, the segregated areas didn't do as well economically. But I don't think the authors managed to show that this was due specifically to segregation as opposed to poverty or other factors.

The authors speculated that segregation in a sprawling region, combined with poor regional transportation, inhibits economic growth because it reduces the availability of the low-skilled workers that make high-skilled workers more productive. Badger quotes one of the authors of the study, Harrison Campbell, a professor of geography and public policy at the University of North Carolina: "I would be much less productive if I had to spend part of my day every day cleaning bathrooms and mopping floors."

In the Chicago area, it is indeed a problem that most jobs are in the suburbs, and that regional transportation isn't great. But that's more of a problem for residents of the south and west sides than for affluent suburbanites, who are still managing to find undocumented residents and other low-income workers willing to make the long commute to clean their bathrooms and mop their floors.

The authors also suggested that segregation is a drag on a metro area simply because it produces and perpetuates poverty, which drains a region's overall productivity and economy.

That's a fairly straightforward explanation, and it may be accurate. But are affluent suburbanites going to be moved to try to eliminate segregation because it may be in their best long-term economic interests?

I doubt it. People in general don't think long-term. That's even truer of politicians, who aren't elected for policies that might benefit their constituents sometime in the distant future.

More important, segregation may not really be bad for all of us. It quarantines poverty, keeping the rest of us safer and reducing the number of "problem children" in our kids' schools. This outweighs any vague ideas about our region's economic health.

And therein lies the secret to segregation's tenacity. Given how entrenched it is—blacks have been largely segregated in Chicago for a hundred years now—eliminating it would be a monumental task even if we were fully committed to it. But we're not committed to eliminating it, because it serves a purpose.

Steve Bogira writes about segregation on Thursdays.

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