Common ground inside the Beltway

A look at the geography of class of the Inner Loop

November 27, 2011|Dan Rodricks

Let's say you live in what might be called the Inner Loop of the Baltimore metropolitan area — that is, the entire territory inside the Beltway. If you're an Inner Loopian, you probably have a sense of where the rich people live, where the poor people live, and where the shrinking numbers of in-between people generally live. And you know who's who, just from observation.

Go shopping on York Road or Loch Raven Boulevard or out Route 40, at the city-county border, and you can sort it all out by observing what people buy (hamburger or steak) and how they buy it (cash, credit or Independence card), by watching how they transport their groceries (SUV, compact car, taxi, bus or on foot) and by noting their direction home (back toward the city or out toward the Beltway).

We tend to think of the Inner Loop as highly segregated — with the poorest people concentrated in the heart of Baltimore, the most affluent Baltimoreans either on the north side of the city or just over the line in Baltimore County, and what remains of the middle class scattered everywhere else.

That's a generally accurate picture. But a new report that gets deep into the weeds of class and geography challenges some of the assumptions we make about life in the Inner Loop.

The report says the Baltimore metro area has significant socioeconomic segregation, but ours is not as bad as that of other regions of the country; nor does it appear to be growing at the rates seen elsewhere.

The report, a real feast for demographic nerds, came out a couple of weeks ago from Stanford University. Researchers pulled nearly 40 years of census data and tracked residential segregation of American families in 117 metropolitan areas (those with populations of 500,000 or more by 2007).

And here's the general conclusion of the report:

The gulf between rich and poor has widened significantly since 1970, with more American families living in neighborhoods that are either mostly low-income or mostly affluent, leaving fewer Americans in what we consider middle-class neighborhoods.

And keep in mind that this trend was confirmed before the housing bubble burst in 2007-2008.

"In 1970," the report said, "only 15 percent of families were in neighborhoods that we classify as either affluent or poor. By 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods."

So class segregation, by this measure, more than doubled over four decades. (For the study, a neighborhood was considered affluent if more than half its households had incomes of $112,500 or more, and a poor neighborhood was one where half the households had incomes of $50,000 or less.)

The research, financed by the Russell Sage Foundation and Brown University, ranked the Baltimore-Towson area (what I'm calling the Inner Loop) at 18th in the nation in economic segregation. Under 30 percent of the population of Baltimore-Towson lives in either affluent or poor neighborhoods. That leaves 70 percent of us in the high, high-middle, middle, low-middle and low-income spread.

By contrast, in some metropolitan areas, fully 50 percent of the entire population lives in affluence or in poverty, and in several metro areas more than 40 percent live at the extremes.

When it comes to economic segregation, the national leaders are in Connecticut (Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk), New York-New Jersey and the Philadelphia area. Baltimore-Towson was well behind Detroit, Los Angeles, Houston, San Antonio — even Milwaukee and Columbus, Ohio — when it comes to this measure of class and geography.

The growth in the trend was most pronounced in the areas I just mentioned, plus Oklahoma City and Toledo, Ohio; in the Greensboro-High Point area of North Carolina; the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre area of Pennsylvania; and even in Syracuse, N.Y.

It's important to note that, while it has significant socioeconomic disparity, the Baltimore-Towson area did not register major changes in that regard between 2000 and 2007, according to the Stanford study.

A couple of trends suggest more Inner Loop diversity than we've assumed: The city demolished its high-rise public housing projects in the 1990s, forcing low-income residents to live elsewhere. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of people living below the federal poverty line in Baltimore's suburbs grew by nearly 21,000, while the city saw a decline of more than 24,000 poor, according to a study by the Brookings Institution. The suburbanization of poverty, along with the decline of the middle class, continues to be a national trend. (The Capital in Annapolis reported last week that the number of people receiving food stamps in Anne Arundel County has tripled since 2006, with more than 37,000 families getting that form of assistance now.)

The rich we shall always have with us, and only in certain ZIP Codes.

But poverty has grown, and it has grown in places where it virtually wasn't allowed before, right alongside the shrinking middle class of the Inner Loop. Maybe that's a bad thing. Maybe it's for the good. Maybe, here and elsewhere, the American poor and the middle class can establish common ground and get the revolution started.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesday, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR-FM. His email is

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