Texas’ cities among nation’s worst for income segregation

In recent years, the so-called “Texas Miracle” has ushered in unprecedented job and population growth in our state. But, according to a report by Richard Florida released last week by The Atlantic’s Cities blog, Texas is struggling when it comes to one crucial measure of economic success: the gap between the rich and the poor. Texas now has the dubious distinction of leading the nation in income segregation, or, as Florida defines it, “the increasing tendency of affluent people to live in neighborhoods where almost everyone else is affluent, and poor people to live in neighborhoods where almost everyone else is poor.” 

Among large metropolitan cities, which Florida defines as those with more than 1 million people, San Antonio is the nation’s most segregated. Houston clocks in at number four, Dallas-Fort Worth at number eight and Austin at number 10. And among all cities — large and small combined — El Paso tops the list, with Laredo in second, McAllen in third, College Station in sixth, San Antonio in eight and Brownsville in ninth. 

But what does income segregation actually look like? In Austin, the 10th-most income segregated large metropolitan city in the country, it comes in the form of an imposing, physical barrier between rich and poor: I-35. Last month, the Austin American-Statesman’s Dan Zehr mapped the average income and education levels of each of Austin’s zip codes, with a color code that showed the concentration of a particular income or education level — income segregation, in other words. There was a bright line along the interstate, where nearly every neighborhood west of it was a dark shade of red, for affluence, and every neighborhood east was dark blue, for low income. Interestingly, the Central Austin ZIP code home to UT — 78705 — was among the least segregated; it was a rare, light shade of blue in a sea of the red, affluent ZIP codes west of the highway.

Bill Spelman, a member of the Austin City Council and a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, thinks that Austin’s rapid growth, and the resulting high levels of wage inequality, may have something to do with its high levels of income segregation. 

“Fast moving economies — adding a lot of jobs — tend to add to wage inequalities,” Spellman said. That wage inequality drives segregation and prevents lower wage workers from living in more affluent areas. 

Unfortunately, the solution to income segregation is just as complex as its cause. But it is certainly a problem worth solving, since segregated low income neighborhoods have less human capital and, therefore, present less opportunities for the children who grow up in them. Heather Way, the director of the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic at the UT School of Law, said that income segregation “further entraps households in poverty.” 

On the other hand, there are small steps we can take to get Austin moving in the right direction. For one, more apartment complexes should accept residents with Section 8 public housing vouchers. If a complex has rents that are below the average for an area, they are eligible to accept the vouchers. However, many of them do not, and the ones that do are mainly concentrated in Rundberg or on the East Side — two of Austin’s lowest income, most economically segregated areas. If more complexes accepted Section 8 vouchers, it “would open up a whole lot of [housing] on the north, south and west sides that [low income renters] can’t get into right now,” Spelman said. “So that would, in a small way, contribute to the mobility of people with very modest means to be able to live all through the city. Right now, they can’t do it.” 

Second, Texas could also allow local governments to raise the minimum wage, which is currently forbidden by law. Raise the minimum wage could go a long way towards eliminating Austin’s high levels of wage inequality, which could in turn help reduce income segregation. 

Ultimately, Austin’s segregation problem is the legacy of the city’s racist past. In the early- and mid-twentieth century, the Austin City Council did everything it could to segregate Austin’s black and Hispanic communities on the East Side. Today, this flawed logic of “separate-but-equal” still haunts Austin in the form of its unacceptably high level of income segregation. It’s time we did something about it.