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Residential Segregation by Income: Philly's Red Sea

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As the presidential election draws near, the widening income gap is just one of many political issues on people's minds. In Philadelphia, however, it may be one of the most visible and geographically divisive concerns. A recent report from the Pew Research Center that charts the trend of residential segregation by income in the U.S. over the last 30 years shows that the Philadelphia Metro area is increasingly divided along economic lines.

The Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington metro area ranked fifth among the 10 largest U.S. metro areas in the Residential Income Segregation Index. The index is derived by adding together the percentages of lower-income and upper-income households living in census tracts that are predominantly the same. It's worth noting that the researchers define lower-income households as earning less than 2/3 the metro area median income and upper-income as more than double the median. When the index is broken down into its composite parts, Philly ranks eighth in upper-income segregation and a depressing second after New York in lower-income concentration.

Exploring the interactive map reveals a little more detail. Not too surprisingly, the Main Line, Bucks County and select Jersey burbs show up as having the highest concentration of upper-income segregation while a wide swath of red stretches across Philadelphia, Camden, Chester and portions of Wilmington.

What is a little startling is that census tract 366, the sliver along the Delaware Riverfront stretching from Poplar to Reed, is the only one that turns up blue within city limits. This is really just an idiosyncrasy due to the fact the only residences in the tract are waterfront condos and One Percenter Shad spawning along the banks. Perhaps more surprising, however, is that traditionally posh neighborhoods like Rittenhouse Square and Chestnut Hill show up as middle- or mixed-income.

The more telling reality is that almost the entire city, save Center City and the outer reaches of Northeast, Northwest and South Philadelphia, show up as red. It's also interesting to note the small islands of mixed income that show up in Spruce Hill and East Passyunk, and in Northern Liberties/Fishtown's case a peninsula. It's not too hard to discern that school catchments and, yes, gentrification likely have a lot to do with these tracts' relative concentrations of wealth.

A separate Stanford study released last year covers a longer time range and paints an even more dire picture of Philly's income segregation. According to that research, which used slightly different methods of measuring, Philly went from the 43rd most economically segregated metro area in 1970 to the third by 2007.

So what does it all mean? Combine this data with profiles of persistent racial segregation and it is far from the rosy picture of a multiethnic, mixed-income utopia city planners often shoot for. This type of lopsidedness can lead to entrenched inequities and further social stratification. Embedded in these trends are implications about historical settlement patterns, geographical limitations, urban policy, public housing development, etc., that have kept Philadelphia from going the way of No. 1 on the list, Houston. But there is clearly still work to be done.

We're not holding out much hope for either candidate to offer an answer to this problem in the next couple of weeks, but maybe our readers can. Let us know in the comments.