Same City, Different Worlds

Trauma on children. Lower-performing schools. A lack of access to good-paying jobs.

Cities and their people are shaped by poverty and wealth – but very unevenly. In places like Columbus, Ohio, the outcomes can be alarming.

A 2015 study from researchers at the University of Toronto found that among America’s large metropolitan areas, Columbus had the second-highest level of economic segregation in the nation. Only Austin, Texas, ranked higher.

“It’s not just that the economic divide in America has grown wider,” write authors Richard Florida and Charlotta Mellander. “It’s that the rich and poor effectively occupy different worlds, even when they live in the same cities and metros.”

In 2010, 20 percent of Weinland Park’s housing was abandoned. That’s down to 4 percent today.

What Is Economic Segregation?

Florida and Mellander define economic segregation as “the geographical sorting of people by income, education, and socio-economic class.”

That means something different than economic inequality.

“It is not so much the size of the gap between the rich and poor that drives segregation as the ability of the super-wealthy to isolate and wall themselves off from the less well-to-do,” Florida and Mellander write.

While overall income disparities are greater in larger cities like New York, Boston or San Francisco, those cities tend to have neighborhoods that are more integrated economically, with residents from diverse backgrounds and income levels.

In Columbus, however, the barriers are less fluid. Wealthy people tend to live in wealthy neighborhoods, and poor people in poor neighborhoods. The groups interact a whole lot less often.

Those divides reach into every aspect of people’s lives, impacting health, housing, transportation and income. And for people with ambitions of the middle class, economic segregation will determine how far they must go.

Toxic Stress

The straight numbers for Columbus don’t look good: The city ranks 8th among large metropolitan areas for overall income segregation, 4th for segregation of people with college degrees, and 10th for segregation of working class people.

But what does that look like among residents?

“You see the effects of toxic stress,” says Amy Klaben.

Anita Rosvanis takes three buses and walks with no sidewalk to get from her home to work in Gahanna, an hour-and-a-half commute one way.

Klaben is the project facilitator for Move to PROSPER, an Ohio State University initiative that helps families who want to move out of lower-income neighborhoods find housing in what she calls “higher opportunity communities.”

In the poorest neighborhoods, Klaben says, children and adults constantly experience trauma from the higher concentration of crime, the lack of access to transportation and steady employment, and the impact of lower-performing schools.

In areas like Linden, the Hilltop, and the South Side, poverty affects all stages of life. Though all of Ohio suffers from high infant mortality rates, babies in low-income neighborhoods are less likely to live through their first birthday. Columbus’ rising homicide rate and opioid epidemic are more present there, too.

Especially compared to wealthier neighborhoods like Clintonville and Upper Arlington, residents in low-income neighborhoods lack access to health and dental care. Where Clintonville has two dozen dentists, Linden has only four.

Economic segregation intersects with race, as well. African-American residents in Columbus are far less likely than white residents to own cars, and their commute times are longer on average, costing them valuable time and closing off chances for better opportunities.

Those problems only cascade. Meanwhile, businesses and members of more advantaged groups simply move out.

“People are being left behind,” Klaben says.

Linden, one of Columbus’ lower-income neighborhoods, residents are more likely to lack access to dental care, transportation, and job opportunities.

The Big Sort

It’s not news that America’s income disparity is growing. But it’s more than just a talking point.

The Pew Research Center reports 2015 was the first year on record when middle-income Americans did not make up the majority of the country. Rather, rich and poor Americans comprised more than half of the population.

So if the middle class is losing ground across the country, why does Columbus in particular have such a comparatively high level of economic segregation?

According to the Toronto researchers, Columbus has a number of features that make it more susceptible.

“Economic segregation tends to be more intensive in high-tech, knowledge-based metros,” the study says. “It is positively correlated with high-tech industry, the creative class share of the workforce, and the share of college grads.”

The city’s shrinking working class and and high level of college graduates creates an environment ripe for economic segregation: many opportunities for low-paying and high-paying jobs, but few for in-between. For example, only 7.1 percent of the city works in manufacturing, less than the share of people who work in health care (14.7) retail (12.9), the food industry (9.3), or finance (8.4).

Though disadvantaged groups like people of color and low-income residents are most hurt by economic segregation, the phenomenon is primarily driven by white people, people with college degrees, and people in higher-paying occupations.

How? Through their behaviors and locations.

“These more advantaged groups have the resources to isolate themselves from less advantaged groups,” the study says.

What happens next is what Bill Bishop calls “The Big Sort.” Rather than continue living around poverty, residents with resources can move to a nicer neighborhood. High-income neighborhoods receive more investment, and low-income neighborhoods lose out. The cycle continues.

Part of the problem, according to Klaben, is regulation.

Klaben says Columbus lacks the laws adopted in some others cities that require developers to have a certain percentage of their housing be affordable for lower-income residents.

Some cities also have policies to protect existing homeowners from skyrocketing property taxes that come along with nearby development, which can price people out of improving neighborhoods.

“As rents go up in our community, which they are, it doesn’t mean that people who live in the neighborhood are benefiting,” Klaben says.

Columbus, its organizations and people have made some strides in patching up weak spots. Neighborhoods like Weinland Park are seeing more public and private investment in infrastructure and housing. COTA is rethinking how to provide transportation services to underserved areas.

That still leaves much to do.

As Columbus looks to build itself as a “smart city,” a place of opportunity and innovation, it’s apparent that economic segregation threatens to undo those advancements – or at least slow them down for the people who could benefit most.


Have a question about why it’s so hard to get ahead in Columbus? Ask us below and we’ll investigate the answer.

Comments (4)

  1. Bob Foster October 30, 2017 at 10:10 pm

    Ms. Klaben has fortutide: three buses, and berm to walk on. Why go to work? Exurbia, the dream; a chicken in every pot. Maybe, some day.

  2. Gretel Young October 31, 2017 at 3:58 am

    It is very stressful to have a low-wage job in a high-pay industry. I have worked as a receptionist at a big law firm, as a unit clerk at the Wexner Medical Center, and as an adjunct teacher at several different local universities. (I have a Ph.D. in Folklore.) In each case, my professional co-workers–attorneys, nurses, doctors and tenured professors–had no idea what living in two worlds was like. I took the bus, and I was on SNAP and Medicaid. They drove luxury cars, joined wine clubs, and had health insurance. Though our educations were similar, there was no common ground. The Columbus workforce is highly educated, but there are not enough well-paid jobs for professionals like me who are in the arts and humanities. I know several cashiers at Target who have undergraduate degrees, or even Masters degrees. We need to raise wages across the board, and the affluent need to be more aware of the people who make their copies and deliver their food.

  3. Holly Bardoe November 1, 2017 at 7:42 pm

    I volunteer in a food pantry, and I’ve discovered a lot of cliches about those who tend to patronize them are often just plain wrong. First, older folks who were getting by fairly comfortably may suddenly have become responsible for grandchildren whom their own children can no longer care for. That can skid the most carefully-prepared budget into the Danger Zone. Catastrophic illness creates a lot more problems than many believe. After necessary medical expenses have been paid there is often not much left for food. Also many people who patronize food pantries may HAVE jobs—sometimes more than one. But if a person works retail or in warehousing/logistics, your work hours are determined at your manager’s pleasure. So in a slow week, a person may be called in for fewer than 20 hours; thus impacting that person’s income for the week. But then, I suppose it aids a person’s psychic health to be deliberately obtuse on how an increasing number of people in this city live.

  4. Robert November 6, 2017 at 8:02 pm

    Inclusiveness is a choice. Columbus’s downtown, Short North, Italian Village, and other downtown growth areas are pricing long time residents out of living and working in these areas, while developers and condo buyers get tax abatements, tax credits, and free funds to build. Need to require that some apartments and condos are required to house low income residents.

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