by Kevin Schofield
This weekend’s read is a fascinating deep dive into the social isolation of America’s economic classes. It’s been known for a while that we’re seeing increasing levels of segregation by income in our residential neighborhoods, schools, and work sites, but this new study by researchers at the Naval Postgraduate School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology looks at how much income segregation there is while we go about our daily activities: shopping, eating out, going to church, visiting the library, walking through the park, etc. These “third places,” as sociologists like to call them (as opposed to home and work), make up a large portion of the time we interact with other people, so it’s important to understand whether they are bringing us together or further isolating us.
The researchers divided up the population into five buckets based on income level, with the top 20% of earners in one, the next highest 20% in another, on down to the lowest-income 20%. Then, based upon anonymized location data from people’s mobile devices, the researchers looked at where people spend their time and the chances of encountering a person there from each of the five income buckets. If the people who visit a particular location are evenly integrated across income levels, then the chances would be 20% for each of the five buckets; but if it tends to skew toward higher- or lower-income patrons, we would see different percentages.
It turns out the highest-income group is the most isolated in their daily activities: 41% of the people they meet are from the same high-income group. The next-most-isolated group is the lowest-income group, at 31%. The three groups in the middle are much more integrated — at least across their three groups.
The researchers then dug in to try to explain what was leading to the relatively extreme isolation for the highest- and lowest-income groups. Among their least surprising findings was that certain industries were economically isolated: Certain kinds of general merchandise stores, storage facilities, auto stores, and used car dealers, and various government facilities, such as jails, child and youth services, and post offices, tended to have higher shares of low-income visitors, while marinas, men’s clothing stores, golf courses, breweries and wineries, and furniture stores had larger proportions of high-income visitors. But altogether, the industries with the highest proportions in either direction had relatively low numbers of visitors, so ultimately they didn’t have large impacts on overall isolation. The four industries collectively making up nearly two-thirds of all visits were “essential retail,” “non-essential retail,” “full-service dining,” and “limited-service dining.” And while these four kinds of industries have locations in most neighborhoods, the differences between them — and between individual locations within each industry — highlight the most important factor explaining the economic segregation: location. People, especially rich people and poor people, tend to shop and eat at places in their own neighborhoods.
It turns out that churches, libraries, and post offices are isolating not only for the richest and poorest but for all income levels, because they primarily serve their neighborhood and thus their clientele reflect their neighborhood’s economic level.
Some stores and food-service businesses are also isolating, such as dollar stores and Starbucks cafés, because of where they are sited: Dollar stores are usually in poorer areas, and Starbucks storefronts are typically in commercial districts and richer residential neighborhoods. However, “casual dining” restaurants, such as Applebee’s, IHOP, Olive Garden, and Chili’s, rate the highest in their ability to draw in people across economic classes.
Where this gets more curious, and complicated, is the effect of large corporate chains. While IHOP integrates across classes, CVS pharmacies tend to do the opposite: Collectively, CVS has customers across all economic levels, but each individual store tends to draw only from its surrounding neighborhood, and so it can further isolate. Overall, large chains of stores and restaurants tend to mix more than independent stores and restaurants, perhaps because of “name recognition”: Knowing and trusting the franchise in my neighborhood might make me more likely to visit one in another neighborhood.
There are more nuances to this story. So-called “full-service” restaurants tend to provide low-income customers more interactions with higher-income customers, but not the reverse; on the other hand, “limited-service” restaurants, like McDonald’s, give high-income customers more interactions with lower-income customers but not the reverse.
This is more than just an academic exercise: There are policy implications to this too. For example, public parks tend to integrate across economic groups, while museums and historical sites tend to isolate (since they draw more higher-income visitors). Local governments need to consider whether the investments they make in public facilities are creating successful mixed-income communities (a common goal in progressive cities, such as Seattle) or instead further isolating economically stratified neighborhoods. Along similar lines, local governments like to invest in programs to discourage large corporate chains in favor of small, independent, and family-owned businesses; but the data seems to show that the chains tend to integrate a wider range of customers, while small businesses tend to reinforce economic isolation. Obviously, policymakers shouldn’t make decisions based solely on one dimension, such as economic mixing, but reports like this point out the complexities and tradeoffs involved in crafting policies to guide the economic development of a community.
Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.
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