How Race Determines Well-Being in U.S. Cities

With over 80% of U.S. residents now living in a metropolitan area, America is now primarily a loose collection of urban and suburban population centers. But the benefits of living in these areas are not shared equally, especially when it comes to the economic well-being of different racial groups. To detail how race affects city and regional outcomes, Prosperity Now has published a new report, Bound: How Race Shapes the Outcomes of American Cities, which uses the most recent city-level data from the Prosperity Now Scorecard.

As research has demonstrated, residential segregation remains one of the driving forces behind the disparities between racial groups. These dynamics of residential segregation—often manifesting through a one-sided process of self-selection—are replicated in every city and region in the United States, each serving as a microcosm of the racial wealth divide.

The report analyzes the relationship between race and household well-being in America’s large and mid-sized cities (Census-defined places with population of 75,000 people or more). This tension is best characterized in the relationship between center cities and their suburbs. Where center cities are relatively inclusive from an overall population demographics standpoint, suburbs are generally exclusive by design. Where center cities are largely the economic engine of a region, suburbs are where productive resources and household assets are hoarded. Where center cities are still the population centers of the nation, suburbs and rural communities are where political representation is concentrated.

Not coincidentally, suburbs are where White families and households are also most concentrated, and where the cities with the best overall outcomes in the Scorecard are located. Suburban enclaves like The Woodlands and Allen, TX; Newton, MA; Livonia, MI; Naperville, IL; and Centennial, CO are among the best-performing mid-sized cities with respect to all Scorecard measures available at the local level. Suburbs lead the way in homeownership, poverty rate, median household income and liquid asset poverty. Suburbs have the fewest households with zero net worth, the fewest uninsured residents and the most residents with a four-year college degree.

Further, the cities with the highest unemployment and poverty rates, the lowest homeownership rates and the lowest median incomes are predominantly populated by Black and Latino residents. Cities like Camden, NJ; Flint, MI; Reading, PA; and Norfolk, VA are characterized by the structural upheaval that accompanied the decline of the manufacturing industry and unions, including widespread disinvestment and the White flight that occurred in conjunction with it. Of the 476 municipalities assessed in the new brief, just five—or 1.05%—show White families more likely to live in poverty than families of color. This is by design.

As is evident in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex and Virginia’s Hampton Roads areas—and in region across the country—the residential segregation that created the suburbs took shape in center cities. Even as center cities become more popular for external investment, suburbs continue to thrive. This investment has been prompted by the return of suburban residents—who initially fled from center cities as Black codes were struck down—back to urban cores.

The economic and social freedom and mobility that characterize both White flight and gentrification have been zero sum. The free movement of non-White people—from city to city, from school to school, from economic class to economic class—is restricted so that White people can move freely. In the most literal example, land was taken—through violent and coercive means—from Native and Indigenous people and redistributed to White people. As a direct result, White people were gifted the freedom to move wherever in the continent they desired, while the original inhabitants of that land were killed or forcibly moved and restricted to reservations.

Without first acknowledging this history, and that our present disparity and unrest are born of the repetition of this pattern across the intervening decades, we cannot hope to achieve full equality of opportunity. And without addressing the role that White supremacist policy has played in reinforcing our social and economic caste system across racial lines and city boundaries, and redressing those most harmed by this fact, our nation will never be made whole.

For more, including how the gap in community outcomes can be addressed through municipal policy, read Bound: How Race Shapes the Outcomes of American Cities.