housing/residential segregation

Last week I posted the results of a survey that found that many beneficiaries of government programs don’t recognize themselves as participating in a federal program at all. For instance, 60% of respondents who have written off their mortgage interest on their taxes didn’t see that as a government benefit or themselves as program beneficiaries. Basically, programs and policies that are disproportionately used by the middle- and upper-classes are taken for granted. I wrote,

…allowing you to write off mortgage interest (but not rent), or charitable donations, or the money you put aside for a child’s education, are all forms of government programs, ones that benefit some more than others. But the “submerged” nature of these policies hides the degree to which the middle and upper classes use and benefit from federal programs.

Brian McCabe, over at FiveThirtyEight, recently wrote a post about who benefits from the mortgage interest tax deduction program, which remains enormously popular among the general public. McCabe says,

Commentators often talk about the mortgage interest deduction as a prized middle-class benefit that enables households to achieve the American dream of homeownership. But despite their strong support for the deduction, middle-class Americans are not the primary beneficiaries of this federal tax subsidy.

If you aren’t familiar with the program, basically when you’re doing your taxes, you are allowed to reduce your taxable income by subtracting the amount you paid in mortgage interest that year. Home ownership isn’t treated equally — the tax deduction is worth more as the price of the home, and thus the amount of interest paid, goes up. McCabe points out that in 2009, this program meant that the federal government took in about $80 billion less than it would have otherwise, making it one of the most expensive tax policies and the single most expensive deduction offered to homeowners (much more than deductions for putting in energy-efficient windows, etc.).

But this expensive program is disproportionately used by relatively wealthy individuals. For instance, about a quarter of taxpayers making $40,000 – 50,000 a year claim the deduction, while over 75% of those making above $100,000 a year do:

The differences in usage is partly because the wealthy are more likely to own* homes. In addition, those with lower incomes generally buy cheaper houses and often find that they reduce their taxable income so little by writing off the mortgage interest that they’re better off taking the standard tax deduction than to itemize.

Because wealthier individuals are more likely to use the program at all, and when they do, generally have more mortgage interest to deduct, the benefits of the program go disproportionately to those with higher incomes. This image shows the proportion of all tax filers that fall into each income category, and the proportion of the total tax deduction benefit that goes to each category:

This is similar to what we see with farm subsidies: while small- and mid-sized farms benefit, the money spent on the program disproportionately goes to the largest farms.  The mortgage interest deduction program is discussed as a method for helping the middle-class achieve the American Dream of homeownership. And certainly it does make home ownership more attractive to many middle- and lower-income individuals. But it overwhelmingly benefits upper-income home buyers, at a significant loss of tax income for the federal government.

* On a side note, I find it odd that we say someone “owns” their home when they owe a mortgage on it. The second I signed a mortgage last year, I entered the much-praised category of the home-owning citizen. Yet as my mortgage-hating farm family has made me very aware, I’m not even close to truly owning my home at this point; I’m more of a special category of rent-to-own resident whose landlord is the bank or mortgage company.

Cross-posted at Caroline Heldman’s Blog.

Essence Music Festival, the “party with a purpose,” is a three-day event in New Orleans, featuring speakers during the day and musical performances at night.  It also caters to an almost exclusively black audience, bringing 400,000 people to the Crescent City each year.  Their sheer presence challenges informal systems of segregation in New Orleans.

After the show, I walked through the French Quarter with a few friends and noted how unusual it is to see so many black people in this part of town. Despite losing 118,000 black residents after Katrina, New Orleans is still a majority-black city, but highly segregated and even more so after Katrina.   Formal and informal “policing” generally keeps black locals out of the touristy French Quarter, with the exception of Black residents who work/entertain there.

You can see just how segregated in this map by Eric Fischer (each dot is 25 people; red = White residents, blue = Black residents, and Green = Asian residents):

I first learned about this informal segregation a few years ago when I convinced my reluctant friend, Earl, to go to the Cat’s Meow on Bourbon Street for karaoke. A few blocks from our destination, Earl lagged behind for a moment, distracted by a cat painting, and a group of white locals “warned” me that I was about to “get jumped” by the black guy behind me. Once on Bourbon, we were there for less than a minute before a police officer approached us, questioned Earl’s reason for being there, and told us both to leave.

Policing also occurs in “black neighborhoods” in New Orleans. Working and living in the Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Wards, my white students and I have been stopped more times than I can count by NOPD, other law enforcement, and “friendly” white people who question why we are in these neighborhoods (or as one member of the National Guard called the Seventh Ward, “Ghettoville USA”).

With the Essence Festival in town, it was refreshing to see many black faces around the French Quarter over the weekend, enjoying the most enriching nightlife in the country. But not everyone saw it this way.

An acquaintance told me her white roommate stayed in all weekend because the Essence Festival was in town and she didn’t want to “get shot.” A white friend who works as a server in the French Quarter told me she was happy when the Essence Festival was over because she wouldn’t have to hear all the racist comments from her fellow servers and her boss. While these white residents live in a majority-black city, they feel threatened when black people come from out of town and don’t follow the rules that keep local blacks in “black neighborhoods.”

Then came the news that a New Orleans Police Department Commander was reassigned pending an investigation of instructions he gave to officers on Friday night when deploying them into areas catering to Essence Festival visitors. He allegedly instructed them to single out young, black men, although the exact language he used has not been released. It’s worth mentioning that Essence has never had an incident of violent crime during its seventeen years, and (now former) Mayor Ray Nagin reported that there is less crime in the city during the festival.

The presence of hundreds of thousands of black people from other parts of the county who don’t know the unspoken rules of racial segregation in New Orleans exposes both these rules and the pernicious racism that undergirds them.


More maps from Eric Fischer.

Also on residential segregation, see our posts on how it leads to uneven rates of asthma, lead poisoning, and exposure to toxic release facilities.  But we blame poor people anyway.

Katrin sent along a link to a Los Angeles Times article reporting on how family composition in the LA area has changed in the past decade.  The short story is that families are less “traditional” than they were ten years ago.  Only 23% of households are now made up of a married couple with kids (down 10% since 2000). Meanwhile, single-parent families, non-married partners (with and without kids), and same-sex couples (with and without kids) have all increased by 20-25%.  Married couples without kids are up too (by 4%), they’re now 26% of all households.

The maps below show the percent of households in each census tract that include an unmarried couple living together.  Darker orange means a greater percentage.  You can see that this convention-breaking isn’t evenly distributed.  I think the big orange blob underneath Burbank is Silver Lake/Echo Park, a notoriously hip part of the city where you find lots of “hipsters,” and Hollywood, where the population of same-sex couples is likely higher.

Los Angelenos, do you see anything else interesting?

See also the amusing: What Does a Traditional Family Look Like?

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

A few weeks back, Forbes named Pittsburgh as the most livable city in the U.S. The description of the city talks about its “art scene, job prospects, safety and affordability,” and presents a picture of Pittsburgh as a city that has rebounded from both its industrial past and the current economic crisis to become a cultural and intellectual hotspot:

Forbes ranked cities based on unemployment, rates of income growth in the past 5 years, crime rates, cost of living, and cultural/artistic opportunities (according to Sperling’s Best Places Arts & Leisure Index). The final score is an average of the different elements, each of which are weighted equally, though I can’t help but think a lot of people might think some of those factors are more important in how they evaluate a location than others. Also, I have some reservations about rankings from Sperling’s Best Places, as they have a “manliest cities” ranking commissioned by Combos snacks that includes “sales of salty snacks/crackers” and deductions for “emasculating” criteria like sushi restaurants.

But I digress. As it turns out, this glowing report is only part of the story of Pittsburgh. The city also tops the charts in terms of African American poverty. African Americans in the region haven’t benefited from the economic turnaround Forbes discussed.

In light of this fact, Jasiri X, a rapper from Pittsburgh, wrote “America’s Most Livable City.” In the song (lyrics here) and video he questions who, exactly, the city is livable for, contrasting the image portrayed in the Forbes article with the region’s neglected and under-developed African American neighborhoods:

There are also three videos featuring Jasiri X interviewing residents of poor neighborhoods. All are worth a watch, but I think the best is the 2nd segment. A local resident discusses how what he sees as exaggerated media reports of the crime and danger in some areas — some created by well-meaning people trying to bring attention to the needs of the community by, he believes, playing up the bad aspects — served to justify abandoning Black neighborhoods in desperate need of economic opportunities:

For another discussion of very different experiences of economic crisis and recovery, see our guest post about Forbes ranking Stockton, CA, as the most miserable city in the U.S.

Thanks to Abby Kinchy for the link.

The phrase “environmental racism” was coined to draw attention to the ways in which exposure to environmental toxins like air pollution and lead is not even across cities and states, but tends to be higher in low income neighborhoods — especially those that are disproportionately Black and Latino — ones that are also more likely than others to be home to garbage dumps, sewage treatment plants, and power plants.  As a result, poor children and children of color are more likely to suffer the consequences of environmental pollution, like asthma and lead poisoning.

Prevention efforts, however, tend to focus on parents’ responsibility for protecting their children from these threats instead of the state or city’s failure to keep all neighborhoods equally safe. For example, even though it’s illegal for landlords to rent out a house or apartment with lead paint, poisoning prevention efforts tend to focus on educating parents.  I thought of this tendency to blame the victim when I noticed a set of billboards going up in my neighborhood in Los Angeles, Highland Park.  Meant to encourage parents not to smoke, they read (in English and in Spanish): “I gave you love, you gave me asthma.”


Highland Park is a low-income neighborhood.  And given what we know about the inclination for cities to tolerate environmentally harmful conditions in low income neighborhoods, this seems to me a particularly nasty message to send.  It erases the role of the city in protecting children and places 100% of the blame on parents (“you gave me asthma”), and then it twists the knife (“I gave you love”). Even if they are smokers, poor parents can only do so much to protect their children from things that the city is all-to-comfortable letting slide.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Elyse Mc.D. sent in this graphic based on data from the Stanford Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality that summarizes a number of aspects of inequality.

You can get a larger version here. I took screencaps of three of the figures I found most striking:


While preparing my taxes — on April 13th on the dot, like every year! — I came across a screen that reminded me of a post I’d written about lifecourse assumptions.  The post featured a slideshow with birth control advice with very rigid age-based expectations.  Turns out, Turbo Tax has some similar ideas.  As I finished up my returns, it announced that it was ready for what would come next in my life. It knows I’m single, rent, and have no dependents so… married, house, and kid (obvi!).

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Forbes magazine recently ranked Stockton California as the most miserable city in the US, a dubious award that comes as little surprise to the city’s struggling residents. Home prices have declined 67% since 2005, unemployment averaged a whopping 17.2% in 2010, and Stockton has the second highest crime rate in California.

In response, Gregory Basso, a retired Stockton businessman, created a video disputing Forbes’ findings. This clip went viral, at least locally, and was discussed by many Stockton residents. In his video, Basso highlights the attributes of Stockton he believes contribute to his high quality of life. These include “debating whether to wear my sun glasses or not in February,” and the many nearby opportunities for golfing, biking and hiking. He speaks of the seven professional sports teams found within a 2-hour radius, and the ability to sail from the yacht-lined downtown marina, along the Sacramento Delta, all the way to the San Francisco Bay. He ends by describing how Stockton has a great first time homebuyers market, and is a cheap central location for large businesses to come and set up shop.

But Basso’s lifestyle represents only a small minority of Stockton’s residents. The color of Mr. Basso’s skin, wealth, and class standing afford him privileges that most residents do not have access to. In a city with a median per capita income of $19,000, few residents have the opportunity to spend their days playing golf and yachting. Neither can they afford to live in the exclusive gated community where the beginning of the video was filmed. And Basso’s excitement about Stockton’s “first time home buyers market” might seem less compelling to the 58% of Stockton homeowners who owe more on their mortgages than their houses are worth.

It’s also worth noting that nearly all of the people depicted in Basso’s video (with the exception of University of the Pacific students) appear to be white. This is striking in a city where 32% of residents identify as Hispanic or Latino/a, 11% as African American and 20% as Asian (source). Because people of color tend to be less well off economically than whites, it stands to reason that many of these people are experiencing the misery that Basso claims that Forbes magazine “got all wrong” are people of color. And although Basso highlights many positive things about Stockton, he mentions neither its rich diversity nor its wide variety of ethnic cuisine.

Sociologist Ruth Frankenberg writes that “privilege is the (non) experience of not being slapped in the face.”*  What she means by this is not only that that white and middle class individuals have advantages over working class people and people of color, but that those of us with privilege often don’t see just how much these differences matter. She argues that race and class disparities are reproduced when those with more privileges do not look, and therefore do not see, just how different our circumstances can be.

Clearly, the goal of this video’s creator is not to erase the experiences of other Stockton residents. To the contrary, it seems he wants to diminish the stigma attached to being named the most miserable city in the US, and to cast it as a place that businesses might want to locate. This could even help generate opportunities for the very people experiencing hardships. However, in this video, Basso chooses not to see the real problems that affect many Stockton citizens. Without an understanding of these problems, Stockton residents are less prepared to address them.

* Frankenberg, Ruth. 1996. “When we are capable of stoppoing we begin to see” in Thompson and Tyagi (eds), Names We Call Home. NY: Routledge. p. 4


Brianna Gall is a senior sociology major at the University of the Pacific and was born and raised in Stockton, CA. Dr. Alison Hope Alko is Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of the Pacific, where she teaches a seminar in public sociology. Her research interests include inequality, environment, food and the social construction of place.

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