In the typical stereotype, suburbs with big homes, large backyards, and “good” schools are the place for families with kids. Meanwhile, urban centers are home to young singles and empty nesters. This sorting of families—by those with or without children—has only accelerated in recent years with the back-to-the-city movement.
The result, according to a growing chorus of urbanists, is a “great inversion” of a long-running pattern of rich suburbs and poor urban areas: Now, as the affluent have gentrified urban centers, the less advantaged are pushed out to increasingly distressed suburbs. Worse, according to some, expensive cities like San Francisco and New York are becoming increasingly childless, because young families can no longer afford to live there.
New research by sociologist Ann Owens of the University of Southern California, an expert in social inequality, takes a detailed look at how families with and without children sort across America’s metro areas. The study, which is forthcoming in a new volume, The Handbook on Urban Segregation, tracks the change in the segregation of two types of families—families with children living at home and families without (such as empty nesters)—as well as the way this sorting affects broader income segregation. To get at this, she uses detailed census data to track such segregation across metro areas (including the core city and its suburbs) and also across neighborhoods (or census tracts) for the country’s 100 largest metro areas from 1990 to 2014.