Kids in LA County grow up more segregated by income

A new USC study finds that children in LA County are growing up more economically segregated than 20 years ago.
A new USC study finds that children in LA County are growing up more economically segregated than 20 years ago.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Children in Los Angeles County are growing up in more economically segregated neighborhoods than their parents did, as affluent families move to where the best-performing schools are, according to a new study out of the University of Southern California.

"People are more and more anxious about their kids getting ahead," said the study's author Ann Owens, an assistant professor of sociology at USC. "If you're a high-income family you can really make those advantages happen for your kid."

By Owens' calculation, income segregation for households with children in L.A. County rose by 12 percent between 1990 and 2010. That's less than the national average of 20 percent, but Owens notes that L.A. was more economically segregated to begin with.

Owens said this parenting intensity is growing against a backdrop of growing income inequality nationwide, exacerbated by the Great Recession.

Wealthier students are "probably going to do fine no matter what" but enjoy a "boost" going to the best districts because they tend to draw top teachers and see higher parental involvement, Owens said.

She said those affluent students also see the "peer effect. "Everybody knows what it takes to get to college and that spills over and benefits other students" — which is not the case in districts with lower-income students, Owens said. 

UCLA education professor John Rogers is not surprised to hear about the impact of income inequality on students and education. Over recent decades in Los Angeles, the gap between rich and poor has been widened as the region has lost jobs in the manufacturing and aerospace industries, which employed a large middle class, Rogers said.

"We’re left with some very high paying jobs and a lot of low-paying service sector jobs," Rogers said. "We are seeing very few jobs in that middle range." 

In this same period, the income gap between a college graduate and high school graduate has also grown. So, Rogers said, parents are seeking out the best education they can afford for their children as a way to ensure they reach college. 

Rogers has been watching wealthier families move out of lower-performing school districts like the Los Angeles Unified School District and said this trend compounds income inequality. 

"In more affluent communities, parents are able to bring more resources to bear through investment, through donations, etc." Rogers said.
Rogers said that the state needs to invest more in public education so parents aren't forced to move for schools.

For Owens, one way to have more income diversity is through housing. She favors the construction of more below-market-rate housing throughout the city, instead of housing vouchers which are not accepted by many landlords.

"Building a supply of affordable housing in mixed income and high income neighborhoods, and not leaving it to the free market and landlords, is very important," Owens said.

Her study is published today in the American Sociological Review.