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Social scientists have called our attention to the growing separation of economic and social classes in the United States. De jure segregation is illegal everywhere, yet de facto separation of wealthy and mostly white from impoverished and mostly Black neighborhoods is typical in major cities.
Public schools today are no more diverse, racially or economically, than before the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Direct mail marketers target the ZIP codes where residents’ eyes will light up at the prospect of a $3000 wristwatch or a $10,000 cruise, not the ones where evictions are a daily occurrence. The rich drive to a high-end mall in a Lexus to shop, while the poor walk to the Dollar Store.
The nation we imagine that we inhabit values character over color and offers equal chances to all. The reality around us is very different.
Are there opportunities for daily interaction between rich and poor, between privileged and struggling, despite the growing gap? Two economists set out to answer this question. Maxim Massenkoff of the Naval Postgraduate School and Nathan Wilmers of the MIT Sloan School of Management published their findings about “Class Segregation in Daily Activities” in an on-line scholarly journal in August. Their work was highlighted in The Economist a few weeks later.
The analytic tools used to illuminate cross-class encounters are complex, set out in numerous formulas and charts. The basic idea is this: begin by sorting residential neighborhoods into categories of higher and lower income and wealth. Then study the daily lives of their residents, using cell phone location data. Where do the rich work, shop, spend leisure hours, and travel? What about the poor? The answers will tell us how classes mix, or do not mix, in the US today.
One of the authors’ findings is that the rich live more isolated lives than the poor. Households in the top income quintile interact mostly with others in the same group, while those in the lowest quintile are twice as likely to have daily interactions with others outside their group. This difference holds only in urban environments, however in rural areas, rich and poor have more frequent encounters in their daily lives.
Where in our daily lives are we likely to rub shoulders with others outside our class? Those of us who worship together on Sunday would like to think that our churches bring us all together, perhaps not so much across ethnic lines — different worship traditions are rooted in different histories – but at least in matters of income and wealth. As Jesus reached out to the poor and vulnerable, we assure ourselves, in our churches we all stand together before the Lord.
Alas, the data gathered by Massenkoff and Wilmers refute this comfortable fantasy. In one of their charts they rank 33 different institutions in American daily life in the order of their contribution to social mingling. Religious organizations are not ranked at the very bottom: that honor goes to elementary and secondary schools. Next lowest are fitness facilities and supermarkets. And then – more segregated in practice than 29 other social institutions – come churches and other places of worship. Much as we would like to think that class and wealth are left at the door when we sit in the pew, quantitative data from our census tracts and cell phone locations show that, most of the time, we seek out others like us on Sunday mornings. The authors write: “Fitness and recreation and religious institutions are likewise highly class-segregated. . . Churches, notwithstanding their oft-cited role in contributing to social capital, isolate both the poor and the rich.”
What institutions do promote more rubbing of shoulders between classes? Not liquor stores or auto parts stores, which have no net effect at all. Surprisingly, golf courses and new car dealerships have scarcely any effect, nor do floral shops and pet supply stores. Rich and poor visit all these places from time to time, but none has any measurable effect on the “experienced isolation” of either group.
Where are class boundaries more permeable? In just a few of our social and economic institutions. Hotels and motels, gas stations, and restaurants are the three categories that top the ranking. Looking more closely we find that “full-service” restaurants have a significantly higher effect on social mixing than “limited-service” restaurants, such as fast-food outlets. McDonald’s or Wendy’s, write the authors, “expose top-quintile visitors to others,” thus diminishing the isolation of the rich, it is true. But they “exacerbate the isolation of the poor,” because so many of their outlets are located in poor neighborhoods where suburban customers never venture.
In the text of the article the authors slice up their data even more finely. Independent sit-down restaurants, they show, are not venues for social mixing. But the story is different for chain restaurants. Analysis of economic and mobility data shows that “low-price, full-service restaurants like Olive Garden, Applebee’s, Chili’s and IHOP contribute to mixing for both poor and rich visitors.” When the authors supplement economic and mobility data with indicators of the proportion of friendship relationships that cross class lines – based in part on aggregated Facebook data – another positive effect emerges. In the words of the writer for The Economist: “If a zipcode has an Olive Garden it is also more likely to be a place where people in suits and people in landscaping uniforms know each other.”
Should we then spend less time in church, among people like us, and more time eating fettuccine alfredo? What if chain restaurants had been operating in ancient Palestine? Then perhaps the parable of Luke 16 would have a different ending:
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and wanting to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. When the rich man passed through his gate Lazarus called out, “What about dinner tonight at Olive Garden? You know, the place that opened up next to the Mount of Olives that’s getting good reviews?” And lo, the rich man and Lazarus ate pasta and meatballs together and shared a bottle of Pinot Grigio. The rich man listened to the poor man’s story and invited him to dine with his family each night.”