A school bus driving through a suburb.
Suburbs are stereotypically the place for families, with wide lawns and "good" schools. Charlie Neibergall/AP

The old divide between family-friendly suburbs and childless city living is fading. The new divide is within the suburbs themselves.

In the typical stereotype, suburbs with big homes, large backyards, and “good” schools are the place for families with kids. Meanwhile, urban centers are home to young singles and empty nesters. This sorting of families—by those with or without children—has only accelerated in recent years with the back-to-the-city movement.

The result, according to a growing chorus of urbanists, is a “great inversion” of a long-running pattern of rich suburbs and poor urban areas: Now, as the affluent have gentrified urban centers, the less advantaged are pushed out to increasingly distressed suburbs. Worse, according to some, expensive cities like San Francisco and New York are becoming increasingly childless, because young families can no longer afford to live there.

New research by sociologist Ann Owens of the University of Southern California, an expert in social inequality, takes a detailed look at how families with and without children sort across America’s metro areas. The study, which is forthcoming in a new volume, The Handbook on Urban Segregation, tracks the change in the segregation of two types of families—families with children living at home and families without (such as empty nesters)—as well as the way this sorting affects broader income segregation. To get at this, she uses detailed census data to track such segregation across metro areas (including the core city and its suburbs) and also across neighborhoods (or census tracts) for the country’s 100 largest metro areas from 1990 to 2014.

One big takeaway: We’re a lot less segregated by family type than we think. According to Owens, America has seen a significant 20 percent decline in the segregation of families across all neighborhoods between 1990 and 2014. Not surprisingly, the metros that continue to have highest degree of segregation by family type are retirement meccas like West Palm Beach, Phoenix, and Fort Lauderdale.  

More specifically, Owens finds the segregation between the urban core and outlying suburbs to be on the decline, and actually quite low. The rapidly gentrifying metros of San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., make up three of the top five metros on this score. Over the past couple of decades, there has been a significant decline in the sorting of families both within cities themselves, and across urban centers and suburbs.

Households with and without children increasingly share neighborhoods,” Owens told me via email. “This could be due to mobility patterns—households with and without children moving into similar types of neighborhoods—or it could be due to long-standing residents staying put when their children move out, so empty nesters remain in neighborhoods where families with younger children live.”

But the broader trend of rising income segregation is primarily related to families with children. In 2014, the level of income segregation for families with children (which account for one-third of households) was more than double that for those without children (which account for two-thirds of households). Income segregation for families with children was worse in Rustbelt metros like Detroit and Milwaukee, where wealthy families have abandoned the city for the suburbs. Racial segregation was also most persistent among families with children.  

When it comes to sorting by income, the long-standing divide between cities and suburbs is actually declining for families with kids, while it remains stable for childless people. This, Owens contends, may be the consequence of gentrification and the movement of more educated singles and more affluent empty-nesters back to cities, or it could be due to the fact that the less-advantaged of those groups are trapped in the suburbs.

But families with kids are now sorting more within the suburbs, rather than across old urban-suburban divides. This likely reflects the growing economic divide in the suburbs themselves, with the affluent and advantaged taking over the best locations with the best schools, pushing the other suburban poor into less-advantaged locations.

“The city-suburban divide has declined in importance in the residential patterns of households with and without kids since 1990,” Owens said. “Perhaps because families with children are staying in cities even as their kids approach school age, perhaps because childless households are moving out of urban cores, perhaps because empty nesters are staying put.”

And she adds, there may be a generational aspect to this, too. “Newer generations of families with children may not prefer the suburbs to the same degree as in previous cohorts. So, this generational shift in preferences may underlie the pattern of the declining importance of the city-suburban line in shaping where families with and without children live.”

The upshot of her analysis is this: The long-running divide between affluent family-friendly suburbs and poor cities is fading. At the same time, new divides are emerging between rich and poor suburbs, driven by the location choices of affluent suburban families with children. “While income segregation between places in a metropolitan area has risen, it's not driven by segregation between cities and suburbs,” Owens added. “Instead, it seems that segregation between suburbs has risen—suburbs are increasingly either disproportionately poor or disproportionately affluent.”

This is part and parcel of the broader trend of the decline of traditional middle-class neighborhoods, as the share of Americans living in such neighborhoods fell from roughly two-thirds in 1970 to 40 percent in 2012. The result is the fracturing of the American landscape into a patchwork of islands of concentrated advantage, surrounded by much larger spans of concentrated disadvantage that cut across our cities and suburbs alike.

“When we talk about rising income segregation between neighborhoods, it's a story about families with children,” Owens said. “We know that neighborhoods are very consequential for children's outcomes, so the fact that children experience the most inequality in their neighborhoods has serious implications for future social mobility.”

Even as Americans are coming together by family type in cities, our divides between rich and poor suburbs deepen. Owens’ research adds an important new dimension to our understanding of America’s ongoing “big sort” and the worsening suburban cleavages that increasingly shape our politics and society.

CityLab editorial fellow Claire Tran contributed research and editorial assistance to this article.

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