Zip codes in northern NJ and NYC ranked and color coded based on household income and college education. Highest ranking areas are yellow, lowest ranking areas are dark blue.

Zip codes in northern NJ and NYC ranked and color coded based on household income and college education. Highest ranking areas are yellow, lowest ranking are dark blue.

The increasing geographic separation between the wealthy and the less affluent is an alarming trend that has emerged in American cities. In this interactive map from the Washington Post, the zip codes are color coded according to the median household income and the percentage of adults who have college degrees. The top ranking areas have been dubbed, “Super Zips,” of which the median household income was about $120,000 and 68 percent of adults are college graduates. For the rest of the zip codes, these numbers were about $54,000 and 27 percent.

What is particularly interesting is that many of these “Super Zips” are found in large clusters, like the large area of 260 square miles with 114,700 households just west of Elizabeth highlighted in yellow in the picture above and even one in the Washington, D.C. area with over 500,000 households covering more than 700 square miles. The Washington Post article mentions an analysis of census data done by sociologists Sean Reardon and Kendra Bischoff:

In 1970, 65 percent of families lived in middle-income neighborhoods; four decades later, 42 percent did. Meanwhile, the share of families living in affluent neighborhoods doubled, from 7 percent to 15 percent, as did families living in poor neighborhoods, from 8 percent to 18 percent.

In this type of spatial division among classes, upward mobility for the less affluent is affected when their communities might not have access to the good schools or the business and social connections that tg in wealthier areas might have.

This article and map from the New York Times discusses a study that found that the chances of upward income mobility for middle-class and poor children varied greatly across metropolitan areas across the country. The author states, “[U]pward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods.” There are also many possible factors that may contribute to this, but the article says that economists are fairly confident that mobility rates are tied to location as opposed to the individuals.

To me, the promise of economic and social mobility is a part of what the American dream is about. The increasing physical isolation of the rich and poor seems to threaten this promise for some. And while income inequality may be inevitable, I agree with what philosopher Michael Sandel (mentioned in the Post article) says in this TED talk, in which markets are the topic, but I think his thoughts apply to this situation as well:

Democracy does not require perfect equality, but what it does require is that citizens share in a common life. What matters is that people of different social backgrounds and different walks of life encounter one another, bump up against one another in the ordinary course of life, because this is what teaches us to negotiate and to abide our differences. And this is how we come to care for the common good.

How we address this problem – through planning, policy, or other means – should be reflective of the society we want to live in and the future we want our children to grow up in.