Studying housing segregation in Chicago, Urban Institute researchers find economic impacts across the whole region. AP

Who bears the economic burdens of segregation?

Ride Chicago’s Red Line from start to finish and you’ll go on a journey through the metro region’s stark racial segregation, reflected in the changing demographics of the passengers. The first stop at Howard is in Rogers Park, which is relatively diverse itself,* but connects to the majority white, affluent Skokie and Evanston suburbs. Then, the train runs through the downtown business district, Chinatown, and ends on 95th street—at the tip of the majority black Chatham neighborhood.

But what if Chicago wasn’t so siloed? What would happen, say, if its black-white segregation dropped to a level equal to the median of the 100 most populous U.S. metropolitan regions? It’s not just the city’s African-American population that would benefit; the entire region would be better off, a new study by the Urban Institute and the Metropolitan Planning Council finds. Authors Rolf Pendall, Gregory Acs, Mark Treskon, and Amy Khare crunch the numbers for Chicago:

  • Per capita income for African Americans in the Chicago commuting zone (which broadly corresponds to the metro) would increase by 12.4 percent—that’s $2,455 more in each black Chicagoan’s pocket per year.
  • For both black and white residents, educational attainment would rise. Around 83,000 more adults would graduate from college, of which 78 percent would be white.  
  • The homicide rate would fall by 30 percent compared to its 2010 level. That means in 2016, Chicago would have experienced 229 fewer homicides.

These findings hold true for the 100 most populous commuting zones the study analyzed. Across the board, segregation by income and race tend to overlap, and the area’s black residents bear the brunt of the economic impacts. But in the most divided and unequal cities, the entire metro pays the price. Racial segregation, in particular, is linked to lower educational attainment and increased crime overall.

Segregation did not rise accidentally; it was created by decades of racially discriminatory policies and violence, and some of those policies persist. As a result, generations of people of color—particularly black and Latino populations—are sealed into neighborhoods without opportunity. The authors write:

In part, market processes create inequity. The wealth of people in the highest echelons does not necessarily benefit working-class people during periods of economic expansion. Furthermore, government policies tend to benefit people with wealth, such as homeowners who receive federal tax benefits. Even income-based policies to increase investment in cities and neighborhoods have not reduced concentrated poverty in minority neighborhoods. Finally, places with majority-white, affluent populations tend to remain segregated because of exclusionary policies that hinder economic mobility options, such as caps on multifamily rental housing. Enduring patterns of segregation make fostering a more inclusive metropolis difficult.

Chicago’s stubborn segregation story is a particularly instructive one. Thanks to discriminatory politics, bad design, and outright neglect, the high-rise public housing towers built by Mayor Richard J. Daley quickly became unlivable places.

The Cabrini-Green projects and Robert Taylor homes were among the most notorious. When they were demolished in the 1990s, the goal was to replace them with mixed income communities. Of the 16,000 residents displaced by the demolition, only 8 percent of the original residents ended up living in these communities, as WBEZ’s Natalie Moore reports.

The rest of the living inhabitants were evicted, remained in public housing, or ended up on housing vouchers—often in worse neighborhoods. (The ones who were able to move to better ones were better off.) Overall, the redevelopment plan was a mixed bag. UI researcher Susan Popkin, who has studied the plan for years, wrote in an op-ed for CityLab:

The fact that no child is growing up in a place as bad as Robert Taylor Homes was when I first walked into it is a real and important victory.

But it is only a partial one. The majority of the families who moved still live in places that are poorer, more racially segregated, and more violent than the rest of the city. Such places will not fundamentally change children’s life trajectories.

That story is hardly unique to Chicago—every community in the U.S. stands to gain from creating more affordable housing in safe neighborhoods with good schools and clean air and water. But, as this UI report demonstrates, the Second City’s needs may be among the most urgent.

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this post misstates the area in which the Howard stop is located.

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