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Are Suburbanites Bigots?

Suburban community

The Wall Street Journal picked up on the conclusions of a new study on geographic mobility last week:

The share of American families living in either poor or affluent neighborhoods has doubled over the last four decades from 15% to 33%, according to an analysis of Census data by researchers Kendra Bischoff of Cornell University and Sean Reardon at Stanford University. The proportion living in affluent areas shot up from 7% in 1970 to 15% in 2009, while the share of families in poor neighborhoods more than doubled from 8% to 18%.

The nation’s growing “income segregation” problem, as the researchers call it, is acute where there are high levels of income inequality—but also in places with growing shares of children.

The conclusions to be drawn from this piece are obvious: more well-off people with children are moving away from low-income areas for the same reasons you might expect them to—safer living conditions and better school quality. But liberals, many of whom are preoccupied with income inequality, perceive a different reason: bigotry. To quote “serena,” a reader who posted in the comments section:

so the condescending gen x, y, are just bigots even though they think they’re better than everyone else. So much for the diversity that they push down everyone else’s throats

Not in my neighborhood [sic]

According to serena, an exodus of families from low-income areas to more affluent ones reveals a pattern of discrimination. This might be the misguided rhetoric of an internet troll, but there’s reason to think that liberal policymakers feel the same way. Earlier this year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) proposed new federal rules to be applied to suburban communities, designed to “reduce disparities in access to community assets based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, or disability.”

Stanley Kurtz has done an excellent job of unpacking the whole issue, arguing that the Obama Administration’s rule changes intend to combat (non-existent) wide-scale discrimination by applying provisions of the Affordable and Fair Housing Act in ways they were never intended to be applied. The goal is to force more suburban communities to provide low-income housing as a way of redressing “previous patterns of discrimination.”

[pullquote]     If liberals really wanted a classless society, they would push for more constructive measures like school choice and the two-parent family.[/pullquote]

But what liberals don’t realize is that the issue is one of self-selection, not discrimination. Human beings have historically always sorted themselves according to ethnic and pecuniary considerations. Why do most Armenian immigrants cluster in the Los Angeles area? Why are so many Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn? It’s not because the Ethiopian communities in Minneapolis or the Mormons of Utah exhibit patterns of discrimination.

Moreover, let’s look at a neighborhood like Petworth, in Washington, D.C. You can’t walk two blocks without seeing single, middle class urban whites living next door to public housing complexes mostly inhabited by minorities. By liberal logic, these whites turn into racists when they marry, have children, and move to the suburbs. But they actually just want an environment more conducive to raising safe and intelligent children.

As Charles Murray has written in Coming Apart, liberals are right to have concerns that a country engaging in such a dramatic sorting process will eventually punch a hole in its social fabric. The internet helped kill the media monoculture that dominated America in the mid-20th century and incomes for middle-class and low-income people have stagnated in the past thirty years, even as the rich have gotten richer. So, gaps are certainly widening. But arguing that affluent families should stay in subpar conditions cuts against the natural human desire to better one’s situation—and especially the situation of one’s children. If liberals really wanted to create a classless society, they would push for more constructive measures like school choice and the two-parent family, not impose bureaucratic regulations to address phantom social ills, as HUD is doing.