Huh? Is This Like the Lake Wobegon Effect?

This article at Kevin Drum's titled "The Death of Middle Class Neighborhoods" really had me scratching my head.

At first I thought this was about an end to self-segregation of the middle class.  After all, if middle class neighborhoods are gone, but middle class people are still living somewhere, then they must be living mixed up with other groups.

But then Drum says the problem is the increasing self-segregation of the middle class.  Huh?  How can they be self-segregating more but we end up with fewer all middle class neighborhoods?

But then the problem appears to be that the middle class want to hang out with the rich people.    Um, OK, I don't find this wildly surprising, though the evidence he cites for this is awful, the typical low standard of science practiced by sociologists everywhere.  But Drum himself admits he self-segregates with more educated people, so there you have your proof.

Finally, as usually is the case with the Left, the problem turns out to be not with the middle class at all but with rich people

We've been fretting for a long time about the rise of gated communities, the abandonment of public schools by prosperous city residents, and the booming market in McMansions. And more and more, this kind of segregation doesn't apply only to the truly rich. Increasingly, even the merely well off hardly have any social interaction outside their own class: they live in different neighborhoods, eat in different restaurants, send their kids to different schools and different sports leagues, and vacation in different places.

Really?  Like you had a much better chance as a poor person to be hanging out with Andrew Carnegie at the pub than you do today chilling with Bill Gates at a Starbucks?  When was this magic past time when the affluent liked to mix more with the unwashed?  I hate to just use my personal observations, but Drum does, so here is mine:  I feel like many of our meeting places today are less rather than more exclusive.  I know a lot of very rich folks, and they simply don't cloister themselves in exclusive clubs and stores like they used to -- I am not at all surprised to see them in the Costco or at the public golf course.

I can be persuaded to accept schools as an exception to this, but this hardly does much to help Drum's argument as the government school system has been run (and run into the ground) by his fellow progressives for decades.  It says a lot about private vs. public solutions that Costco has found a way to appeal equally to rich and poor but the public schools have not.

Update:  From the NYT article on the underlying study, note the problem on these maps- the urban boundary in the study is static, so as the city expands, more of the metro area is outside the bounds of the study area.  What group likely is the predominent occupant of new suburbs on the leading edge of urban boundaries?  Dare I say middle class?

The central core of older American cities has always been where the richest and poorest live.You can see this on the Philadelphia maps.  The pattern is not changing, just each area is getting larger.  A full picture would show the middle class area expanding out as well, but the study cuts off the boundary at arbitrary country lines and never expands the boundary as the city's geographic size grows.  The "trend" they are supposedly seeing are middle class continuing to move outwards from the city center, and their flawed study methodology  loses visibility to them.  This makes more sense than the study's finding, that somehow there is this weird lake Wobegon-type effect where no one is in the middle band of the percentile range.


  1. Mesa Econoguy:

    I'm beginning to think that there are environmental factors in play which influence Kevin Dumb's (and here, the NYT) "writings".

    Radon gas?

    Accumulation of CO?

    Proximate power lines?

  2. Allen:

    Funny how so many on the left are so self-convinced of the existence of their flying spaghetti monster that they can't seem to stop pointing at the same stuff over and over as proof and then be befuddled when others scoff and laugh.

  3. Dan Hill:

    We're supposed to believe that the middle class is so poor that it is disappearing and at the same time is so rich that they're living and hanging out with the truly wealthy? I wish progressives would make up their mind about which social 'problem' they want to engineer!

  4. Ted Rado:

    Segregation of various sorts will always exist. I am an 83 year old retired chemical engineer. Most of my friends are elderly engineers, chemists, and other professionals with similar interests and backgrounds. I cannot afford to pal around with rich people. Poor folks cannot afford to pal around with me. I have no desire to try to make conversation with those with whom I have no common interests.

    People will alwys seek out those with similar social, educational, cultural, and economic backgrounds. An exception is hobbies. I used to spend a lot of time shooting at the gun club, where there were people of all sorts of backgrounds. This is the exception rather than the rule. Except for guns, we had nothing in common.

    People with similar backgrounds and age groups tend to stick together. The only young people I spend time with are my kids and grandkids.

    I can't imagine a 20 year old from a poor background wanting to discuss heat engine thermodynamics with an 83 year old, or listening to Mozart (on old LP's, no less).

    Economic segregation in housing is also inevitable. If I had more money, I would live in a more affluent neighborhood. Also, I can't blame those who can afford it that send their kids to better private schools. Nobody is entitled to better things in life than they can afford through their own effort (Obama's views notwithstanding).

    If you remove all economic differences among the citizenry, what incentive is there to work hard? We go to college, get a job, and try to better ourselves in order to enjoy a higher standard of living.

    In my visits to Hungary in the 80's, a common subject of conversation (in the then communist country) was the need for imcentives. Everybody made the same salary and noone could accumulate wealth, so noone did more than absolutely required to stay out of trouble. The Chinese learned their lesson, and a capitalust economy, with lots of millionaires, is driving a thriving economy.

    I would love to get an explanation from the lefties of how an incentiveless system is supposed to work.

  5. Xmas:


    The trick for a socialist system is to provide incentives that don't make other workers jealous. When someone figures out what that is, then socialism will finally work!

    Actually, the biggest flaw in these type of studies is the expectation that neighborhoods are static. A working class neighborhood will remain a working class neighborhood forever, poor will stay poor, rich will stay rich. The people doing these sort of studies are the same people that are horrified by gentrification and are, ironically, forces of gentrification themselves. (Oh Brooklyn! I turn my hipster eye on you!)

  6. Bart Hall (Kansas, USA):

    Please consider this to be "field notes" rather than some great observation, but I do sense considerable desire on the part of people relatively well off to interact with their lessers -- in controlled situations. At allows them to believe they are "grounded" and still "ordinary people". Some of them are.

    Amongst other things on our farm, we produce a highly-regarded selection of ornamental plants, vegetable seedlings, floral hanging baskets and so on, which we sell at retail here on the farm. Because I speak Spanish with near-native fluency we have a large number of Mexican customers. We're also under ten miles from a community where many people will net more in a week than I do in a year. We are "their" greenhouse.

    Part of what our high-end customers really like about our place is that for an hour or so they can interact -- shared love of plants -- with people all across the social and economic spectra. Then they can go back to their enclave, secure in the knowledge that they're still "ordinary".

    The left's problem is their own. Wealthier people leaving the urban core? "Abandoning the poor!" Wealthier people moving into the urban core? "Displacing the poor!"

    Our customers -- be they multi-millionaire, welder, young mother, or Mexican housekeeper -- understand life far better than the average leftist, and as a result they enjoy that life far more deeply and without all the ideological rage.

  7. Pat:

    Keep in mind that the Federal Government issued something around 80,000 pages of regulations last year. Each one of these new regulations requires someone to comply to a new statute, law, or regulation which adds to the burdensome cost of "just living". All one has to do is look at the quantity and scope of the hundreds of taxes some of which appear on your utility bills, purchases, and services ecetera. The crisis that hit housing as well as the financial sector was engineered to expand into every sector of the economy to bring the country into a very deeep hole. There are virtually no areas of our economy where the government has not interfered to grab power, raise regulations, as well as destroy your freedoms to continue making a living. This leviathan government is consuming everything it touches. It has destroyed education (look at what college costs are, and the fact that student loans are non-dischargeable in bankruptcy), many small businesses, all while expanding it's role in your life. This is a problem which will not, and can not be solved by the Leviathan that created it. Totalitarian / Authoritarian government is the "end game". Do you see it? Do you know what is necessary to "reverse" this course?

  8. citygirl:

    The guy who wrote the original article is probably an idiot, but if you don't have any experience in pre-white flight cities or cities that managed to protect themselves from it then I guess the idea that the classes mix more in the cities might seem insane but it's true. I trickortreated at the Getty's mansion in SF, for heaven's sake, and we were lower middle class/upper working class. There's a whole set of behaviors of my class in a city that takes you into regular contact with really, really rich and powerful people. Does it matter at the end of day? Obviously not, those people threw us under the bus, but yeah, you at least know what those people are like and work for them and party with their kids. No, you don't meet the Andrew Carnegie-equivalent at the pub when he's rich, but you do before he gets rich, and you do meet his son.

    You also see really poor people making decisions and going about their daily lives and learn to be realistic about them. It's a lot harder to sell a city kid on the idea that oppression is the entire reason for a poor person's problems.

    Of course cities haven't always been occupied by the very rich and the very poor, that's silly. Before modern transit how exactly would these rich people have gotten any of their stuff done? They got it done and made and sold to them by middle class people living in middle class neighborhoods.

  9. IGotBupkis, Sailing the Economic Seas Betwixt Scylla And Charybdis:

    I believe this is more in the vein of the "Lake Cluebegone" effect.

    It isn't even vaguely likely to make woe begone.

  10. epobirs:

    The accumulation of modern conveniences has lessened the dependence on servants by the wealthy. The sheer amount of drudgery that consumed day to day life largely defined wealth as being able to afford to have other people do it for you just so you could be free to just relax. The concept of leisure was once limited to a very small slice of the populace. Today, instead of a standing army of servants most of the wealthy people I know have at most a person who comes in to clean and perhaps a nanny if there are children. Several of the people I see regularly at the local Costco could easily afford to have all of their regular shopping handled by an employee but it just doesn't suit them. They LIKE going to the store and seeing what might be new and interesting, and looking for the most attractive bunch of bananas on the table. Mundane things that connect to the world outside our home.

    It might be different for those of great hereditary wealth but people who made it on their own don't want to disconnect from those things that may be considered work but also offer some enjoyment. It is yet another modern luxury to be very well off but not a prisoner of it.

  11. John David Galt:

    What leftist politicians won't dare admit even to themselves is that they, and many of their core constituencies, are the problem.

    As I see it, traditional middle class neighborhoods are going away for three main reasons.

    1) Downward mobility: un-called-for regulation and overtaxation are destroying most good jobs (at least outside of government), causing those who had them to drop below the middle class.

    2) The scam known as urban planning has made good housing extremely scarce and expensive, deliberately (because the planning agencies are owned and operated by existing homeowners for the purpose of keeping home prices as high as possible). Until the bubble burst, this caused extreme gentrification and drove many of the poor into homelessness.

    3) Certain minorities, encouraged by leftist leaders, deliberately move into good neighborhoods and start committing vandalism, theft, and various public nuisances in an attempt to "degentrify" them. Where the planning agencies prevent existing neighborhoods from being converted to gated communities, these thugs succeed. Here in Sacramento, huge formerly-nice neighborhoods have been ruined by these people.

    (Hint for any leftist reading this: It's not racism to shun a minority if their behavior makes it a good idea. Indeed, it's racism to tell us we can't, or shouldn't.)