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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Undermining Economic Segregation

A study of African- American and Caucasian households in the U.S. found that residential segregation between these two groups has decreased over the past decades. At the same time, according to a study released this summer by the Pew Research Center, segregation by income level is on the rise in the U.S.

So while we seem to be breaking through racial barriers, we’re becoming more and more economically isolated, and this has significant implications for those who are striving to rise out of low-income circumstances.

If we continued this trend towards economic isolation, we would expect to see some increasingly significant social challenges:
1)    Because neighbors help neighbors, we could see a decrease in capacity to access help in over-burdened areas.
2)    Because diversity begets empathy, we might well see an increased divide between those with and without resources, particularly among young people who grow up in increasingly economically homogenous communities.
3)    Families who experience a drastic shift in income (up or down) could experience heightened isolation and alienation from their communities.
4)    Low-income youth may increasingly lack access to and familiarity with the educational and professional norms, opportunities and possibilities prevalent in upper-income communities.
5)    Sentiments of xenophobia and class hatred might find a more fertile breeding ground on both sides of the fence.

Dire, eh? Yes, but that’s not the whole story. It’s true that we’re living more segregatedly than in previous decades, but we’re also living more connected. Some of the biggest changes to residential segregation along income lines have come in the Southwestern U.S. which posted an over 60% increase in income segregation between 1980 and 2010. Houston posted the biggest change.

In Houston, though, just this week, a woman from Chicago picketed and protested on behalf of striking Houston Janitors. She said:
"I know the fear that so many have to live with, the fear that you could lose your job for speaking up. Janitors in Houston can't risk arrest without risking their jobs too. I can, so I will."

Across the internet -- across states -- the Chicago woman connected with her community, reached out, stepped up and supported people she felt could use her help. This doesn’t change residential economic segregation, of course, but it does speak to the fact that community is no longer constrained by where we live.

Using technology and human connection, we’re creating a different kind of neighborhood, beyond geographic limits. We can build community and empathy, and extend help to neighbors across boundaries that were once impassable. Benevolent is one tool for this, driving from Chicago to Houston to support those you can relate to is another.

If we took each challenge I listed above one by one, and considered them through the lens of our new-fangled communities and networks using media, technology, and human connection, the outlook might look at least a little bit brighter.

- megan kashner, founder & ceo

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