Clare Higgins: Our Valley’s growing segregation
NORTHAMPTON — I love the political passions here in the Valley; we have strong opinions about most every issue from drones to wars to farm animals. We pass resolutions and we love a demonstration. And, of course, we vote. We are especially good at the political debate if it is very local or if it is national (or international) in scope.
But regional issues are harder to talk about.
In May, I read a story in the Springfield newspaper stating that “the Springfield metropolitan area has the highest measure of white-Hispanic segregation in the country.” In addition, WGGB had a headline on its website saying “Springfield Ranks #1 Most Segregated City.” I felt compelled to find out more.
Coverage stemmed from a study by researchers at the University of Michigan. They looked at the degree to which members of minority groups are distributed differently than whites across metropolitan areas with more than 500,000 people. Completely integrated areas would have a value of 0; the value for completely segregated areas would be 100. The Springfield metropolitan area number for white-Hispanic segregation was 63.4 (1st on the list). For black-white segregation the number was 65.3 (22nd on the list).
Well, the city of Springfield sprang into action. The Springfield City Council set up a public hearing on the issue of racial segregation and the city is also in the process of developing a report on fair housing issues in Springfield.
But, really, it’s not just Springfield’s problem. It is a problem that belongs to all of us here in the Valley. When the federal government says the Springfield metropolitan area, it doesn’t just mean Springfield. It means all of Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties.
We are a segregated region. Not only are we racially segregated, we are segregated by income. Our area was ranked 18 out of 20 metro areas with the largest changes in family income segregation from 1970-2007. Over that time the proportion of families concentrated in poor or affluent neighborhoods almost quadrupled. In other words, poor neighborhoods have become poorer and well-to-do neighborhoods have become richer. This mirrors a trend across the state and the country.
Another study by the Equality of Opportunity Project at Harvard looked at upward mobility — the American expectation that the next generation will do better. In that study, children in our region with parents earning wages that put them in the bottom 10 percent of earners could on average end up at the 37th percentile as adult earners. That’s really good when we compare ourselves to Montgomery, Ala. (30th percentile); not quite as good as Pittsburgh, Pa. (40th percentile) or Oshkosh Wisc. (45th percentile).
It is no surprise that they found higher income mobility in areas with better schools. There is also a correlation between mobility and more civic engagement (both religious and community organizations). Areas with more two-parent households fared better as well.
But the key finding for me was that upward mobility tends to be higher in areas where poor and middle class families are not segregated; the kinds of neighborhoods many of us grew up in.
We all know that segregation by race is wrong, we celebrate the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and we are proud to have an African-American president (even when we don’t agree with him). Segregation seems like an old issue — didn’t we solve that? After all, we have a black president! But the numbers don’t lie and we know, even without the numbers, that Hampshire County is not very racially or ethnically diverse.
So, new housing is good if it is built in someone else’s neighborhood or town. Racial and ethnic diversity is celebrated but segregation by race isn’t really even talked about.
And many of our communities are closed to families living with low incomes.
Springfield is talking about these questions because it is a matter of survival for them. But what is our obligation here, in Hampshire County, to fight segregation by race and income in our region? And why should it matter to us?
It is 50 years since King led the March on Washington and talked about his dream, “deeply rooted in the American dream.” We are far from that dream here in our Valley.
And marches won’t make it happen. Hard discussions about race and class; about discrimination, housing, transportation, public safety, living wages, taxes and public services are needed. But what is most needed is the recognition that we might be part of the problem — and then finding the will to be part of the solution.
As King once said, “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.”
Clare Higgins of Northampton, the city’s former mayor, is executive director of the nonprofit Community Action! of the Franklin, Hampshire and North Quabbin Regions. She writes a monthly column and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.