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A Seemingly Intractable Problem: Rich Parents Segregate Their Children From Low Income Peers

May 28, 2016

Earlier this month Washington Post writer Emily Badger wrote an article with the click bait title “The One Thing Rich Parents Do For Their Kids That Makes All the Difference” whose url provided the answer: “the-incredible-impact-of-rich-parents-fighting-to-live-by-the-very-best-schools”.

Using research by USC sociologist Anne Owens as a springboard, Badger writes:

Owens’s latest research, published in the American Sociological Review, suggests that wealthy parents snapping up such homes have driven the rise of income segregation in America since 1990. The rich and non-rich are less and less likely to share the same neighborhoods in the United States, a trend shaped more by the behavior of the wealthy than the poor or middle class. Owens’s work, though, adds another twist: The recent rise of income segregation, she finds, is almost entirely caused by what’s happening among families with children…. 

That means that a typical childless household lives among more diverse neighbors from across the economic spectrum than does the typical family with children…

Owens additionally argues that as wealthy parents are spending their added resources on housing, they’re choosing that housing with schools particularly in mind. In her data, there’s wider income segregation among families with children in “fragmented” metropolitan areas that have more school districts for parents to choose from, allowing greater sorting between low-quality and coveted districts.

It’s highly likely this same pattern exists within school districts, as wealthy parents compete for housing within the attendance zones of the best schools (again, think Northwest Washington). But Owens doesn’t yet have the data to show this at the smaller local level…

I have witnessed both cases in my career. In the two districts where I worked in NH were among the most affluent in the State and both had housing values that exceeded those of surrounding communities. In both districts, there were instances where once the children left home for college parents sold their higher priced homes in the “desirable” communities, moved into a lower priced home in a nearby rural community, and used the price differential to fund college for their children.

In the county school district where I worked in Maryland and the large Upstate NY districts where I worked homeowners paid a premium to reside in a community that fed into the “most desirable” elementary and high school with “desirability” determined by socio-economic status of the parents. The link between real estate values and “desirable” schools came to the forefront in both communities when it was necessary to redraw the boundaries for attendance zones— “redistricting” in the parlance of school district management. Badger touches on this inner concluding paragraphs:

Politically, the two topics that most enrage voters are threats to property values and local schools.  So either of these ideas — wielding housing policy to affect schools, or school policy to affect housing — would be tough sells. Especially to anyone who has secured both the desirable address and a seat in the best kindergarten in town. Parents in Upper Northwest, for instance, deeply opposed the idea of ending neighborhood schools in Washington. And Gray’s proposal never came to pass.

But, Owens says, “I feel more hopeful in studying these issues today than I did five years ago.” At least, she says, we are all now talking more about inequality and segregation.

It HAS been a long time coming to even begin talking about inequality and segregation… but moving from talk to action will require more than a change of minds… it will require a change of heart… and THAT  requires more than politics.


  1. Elyssa
    May 28, 2016 at 12:40 pm

    This is true for NYC. In Brooklyn, PS 321 is the most coveted elementary school and to get into that zone requires the ability to pay very high rent or mortgage. Middle schools aren’t zoned, but the assumption is that if you start at the best elementary school you will be placed in your top choice middle school and that will help get into the best citywide high school and then into college, etc.

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