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Study: Segregation in U.S. on decline, but disparities persist

By David Ariosto, CNN
updated 7:21 PM EST, Tue January 31, 2012
The all-white neighborhood is
The all-white neighborhood is "effectively extinct" in the United States, a study says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Other scholars say the report paints too rosy a picture
  • America's social and income disparities remain, it adds
  • The findings are gleaned from census data by two economists from a conservative think tank
  • Expanded access to mortgage credit has also helped integration, they say

(CNN) -- Segregation of African-Americans in cities and towns across the United States has dropped to its lowest level in more than a century, according to a recent study.

The Manhattan Institute report, released two days before the start of Black History month, points to federal housing policies, changes in public perception and demographic shifts since the 1960s that have helped integrate the nation.

Still, the study adds, America's social and income disparities continue.

"We thought about racial inequality and thought that neighborhoods had something to do with it," said economist Jacob Vigdor of Duke University, who co-wrote the study with Edward Glaeser of Harvard University at the New York-based conservative think tank.

"It turns out it's a far more complicated picture."

The findings, gleaned from census data dating back to 1890, show that "all-white neighborhoods are effectively extinct" and that black populations in urban ghettos are in decline. And yet the new phenomena has not ushered in the kind of parity that analysts had once envisioned with more integrated neighborhoods.

"Pushing someone from a segregated neighborhood to a nonsegregated neighborhood does not magically give them a diploma," Vigdor said.

America's schools, he added, are commonly considered less integrated than they were during the 1970s and '80s, when school districts implemented court-ordered busing plans in an effort to combat the effects of segregation.

Still, Vigor considers the demographic shift apparent in America's neighborhoods "monumental."

According to the study, only 0.5% of neighborhoods are without black people, compared to 20% a half-century ago.

The report points to African-Americans' moving out of cities and into suburbs as a prime cause, a departure from a turn-of-the-century era known as "The Great Migration" when rural blacks began moving into cities in search of work.

It further notes that the inclusion of immigrant populations and increased gentrification of urban areas were also contributing factors.

Others say the study, titled "The End of the Segregated Century," glosses over persistent realities of continued segregation by focusing on the change.

"Its clearly diminished and nobody would argue that," said Jonathan Rothwell, senior research analyst at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. "But to suggest that its ended is ridiculous."

A November study also noted that segregation could also be on rise within racial groups, increasingly divided by income stratas.

"As overall income inequality grew in the last four decades, high- and low-income families have become increasingly less likely to live near one another," wrote co-authors Sean F. Reardon and Kendra Bischoff of Stanford University.

The Manhattan Institute study, meanwhile, at least in part blames "decisions by public housing authorities and other agencies" as having in the past "reinforced existing patterns of segregation." The reversal of such policies -- as well as a shift in racial attitudes -- has helped usher in a change, the report says.

More than four decades after Congress passed the Fair Housing Act, legislation that strengthened prohibitions against housing discrimination, several other factors have also worked to encourage neighborhood integration; among them, access to mortgage credit, the report says.

But expanded access has similarly allowed homeowners to get "caught up in the subprime housing bubble."

"There are costs and benefits associated with tightening credit standards," the study adds.

It also cautions that despite advancements, such as increased minority representation in legislatures and the election of the nation's first black president, the "end of segregation has not caused the end of racial inequality."

According to 2010 census data, the median annual income of black households was just over $32,000, while white non-Hispanic households earned $54,000.

Asian households -- which topped the earnings chart -- made on average about $64,000, while those who identify as Hispanics or Latinos earned just under $38,000.

The U.S. Census Bureau also reported that 27.4% of African-American households were living at or below the poverty line, in comparison with 9.9% of non-Hispanic whites.

The black unemployment rate was also more than twice that of non-Hispanic whites, a figure that has largely persisted since the federal government began tracking the figures in 1972.

Economists often point to a black work force younger than its white counterpart, lower numbers of college-educated African-Americans, and the fact that many blacks live in areas of the country often harder hit by recession.

But even barring those factors, analysts say, African-Americans commonly face income disparities and higher unemployment rates nationwide.

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