Pulling Apart: Economic Segregation among Suburbs and Central Cities in Major Metropolitan Areas

Colleen Casey, Peter Dreier, Robert Flack, and Todd Swanstrom


An analysis of census income data for cities and suburbs in the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas between 1980 and 2000 shows that:

The overall per capita income gap between central cities and suburbs remained unchanged between 1990 and 2000, in stark contrast to the widening gaps in the previous two decades. However, the city and suburban income gaps in the Northeast and Midwest are still wide and growing while smaller gaps in the South and West are narrowing.

  • The proportion of poor and affluent suburbs (to middle-income suburbs) increased rapidly in the 1980s but leveled off during the 1990s. As a result, only just over 60 percent of suburban residents live in middle-income suburbs today versus nearly 75 percent 20 years ago.
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  • The gap between the richest and poorest suburbs increased rapidly during the 1980s and more slowly in the 1990s, although patterns of inequality vary widely across the country. Generally, the suburban income gaps are largest in the Sun Belt metro areas such as Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Houston. In Northeastern metropolitan areas such as Buffalo, Rochester, and Hartford, per capita incomes between suburbs are more similar.
  • Most of the growth in the number of poor and affluent places occurred because middle-income places became poorer or more affluent. An important exception is that the growth in poor places in the 1990s occurred entirely in counties annexed by metropolitan areas. Using fixed 1990 boundaries for metropolitan areas, the number of poor places actually declined in the 1990s.

Even though the prosperous 1990s improved the per capita incomes of cities and suburbs, the decade did not reverse or eliminate the income inequalities across locales that emerged during the past three decades.