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Wealthy American families are increasingly segregating themselves around higher quality schools, creating "affluence bubbles," according to a new study.

University of Southern California sociologist Ann Owens broke down existing studies of neighborhood segregation effects by families with children and families without. Here's what she found: families with children, on average, accounted for almost all of the increase in America's income segregation since 1990.


"Income segregation increased substantially from 1990 to 2010 among families with children but changed little among childless households," she writes.

The average change from 1990 to 2010 among families with children increased over 20% compared to no change, on average, among childless households, she said.


"The average high-income household with children thus lived in a neighborhood with slightly more high-income and fewer low-income neighbors than did the average high-income household without children," she says. "The average low-income household with children lived among slightly more poor and fewer rich neighbors than did the average low-income household without children."

So what's driving the increase among families? School choice.



"Rising income inequality provided high income households more resources, and parents used these resources to purchase housing in particular neighborhoods, with residential decisions structured, in part, by school district boundaries," she writes.

Low-income households are more limited in their ability to move to better school districts because they have lower information, often as a result of having less time to seek it out, Owens says.

Crain's Chicago reports that Chicago has been particularly illustrative of Owens' findings. Owens said that "affluence bubbles" have been created as wealthier families increasingly cluster around higher quality schools.


"Rising income segregation between neighborhoods is a story about families with children, demonstrating the particularly high stratification of children’s contexts," Owens writes. "Neighborhood effects studies have documented considerable disadvantages associated with growing up in impoverished neighborhoods…and the greater and growing inequality in children’s contexts over time suggests growing inequality for future generations."

Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.