CDPS Speaker Series: Income Segregation: Trends, Causes, Consequences – Insights from Dr. Ann Owens

May 8, 2020

The Community Development and Policy Studies (CDPS) division of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago hosts an internal speaker series to convene scholars of diverse perspectives and academic fields to speak about issues impacting low- and moderate-income (LMI) communities and other vulnerable populations. CDPS hopes that the viewpoints garnered from the various presentations will fortify and enhance the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s work in understanding and improving the socioeconomic conditions in LMI communities. Ann Owens, associate professor of sociology at the University of Southern California (USC), was the inaugural speaker for the series. 

Dr. Ann Owens’ research centers around the causes and consequences of social inequality, with a focus on urban neighborhoods, housing, education, and geographic and social mobility. In addition, her research examines how social policies cause or alleviate social inequalities. 

Owens’ presentation, entitled Income Segregation: Trends, Causes, Consequences, described income segregation as a condition where households in a given metropolitan area tend to live in neighborhoods where their income is similar to that of their neighbors—relatively high-income households in some neighborhoods, and relatively low-income households in others. Her talk drew on her own research on income segregation. Key takeaways included: 

  • Income segregation has steadily increased for families with children since 1990. For households without children, however, income segregation has not changed dramatically over this period. 
  • Income inequality contributes to income segregation. As segments of the population gain higher incomes, they are able to move into neighborhoods with residents who also have high incomes. 
  • The structure of the housing market and public amenities also play a role in income segregation. For instance, neighborhoods in highly sought-after school districts and in which the housing stock is predominantly single-family homes tend to have fewer affordable options for LMI families, which can result in higher levels of income segregation. 
  • Research from across the social sciences, including her own, has identified how income segregation leads to disparities in health outcomes, child academic performance, and other measures of social and economic well-being. 

Owens further described four approaches to addressing income segregation: 

  • People-based approaches involve moving low-income people to high-income places with mechanisms such as housing (rental) vouchers. 
  • Place-based approaches involve investing in low-income neighborhoods while insuring that incumbent residents are not displaced as a result. 
  • The structural change approach involves enacting policies to reduce the level of income inequality in the country at large. 
  • Lastly, a “hearts and minds” approach that uses media and marketing strategies to shift mindsets around factors that contribute to income segregation, such as concerns with property values. 

Owens also discussed the implications of the current COVID-19 pandemic, and the ways that crises reveal and often exacerbate existing inequalities. Consequently, she recommended that policymakers should consider how to fortify communities that were already vulnerable and potential issues they will face, likely in greater measure, such as housing instability. A further concern is for the pandemic to be used as a justification to limit housing density. She describes how an effective mechanism for reducing overcrowded housing, a factor exacerbating the pandemic, is to increase the overall supply of housing. 

Dr. Ann Owens earned her PhD in sociology at Harvard University and currently serves as a faculty affiliate of the Spatial Sciences Institute and an associate director of the Sol Price Center for Social Innovation at USC. (Faculty Display > Department of Sociology > USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences) 

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