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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.”

David Hoekema

David A. Hoekema is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and retired Academic Dean at Calvin University, and, in the winter, a Visiting Scholar at the University of Arizona.  His most recent book, We Are the Voice of the Grass (Oxford University Press), recounts the tireless work of Christians and Muslims who came together to strive for an end to a brutal civil war in Uganda. In light of recent developments in the Christian Reformed Church, he is now a member of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona and he also participates in the worship life of St. John’s Episcopal Church of Grand Haven, Michigan. Hiking, bicycling, choral music, old-timey string bands, and conversation with Christians whose minds and hearts are open to all are among the things that gladden his heart.  


  • Dawn says:

    Interesting study. While I’m not sure I would have thought of it, it makes sense. Olive Garden. Crazy. Good reminder for us all to consider our own lives. And churches.

  • RZ says:

    Thought-provoking exercise. Thanks David. You are far more scholarly and witty than I. Nevertheless I cannot help but reflect on the Rich man/Lazarus parable. His persistent, eternal, delusional blindness is front and center. A faulty picture of the nature of sin deludes him because he can tell himself he is not prone to hate God and his neighbor. He probably doesn’t, in fact. But he is profoundly selfish, increasingly greedy, and increasingly blind.
    On to economic systems now…. There is a saying in organizational leadership understanding: If you want something done quickly and efficiently, do it yourself. If you want it to last, however, bring in all the stakeholders. I cannot trust myself to recognize you and your needs unless I listen to you and empower you. This hurts you but it also diminishes me. Such is the nature of sin. Beam-in-the- eye! An intentional and strictly guarded balance-of-power agreement is absolutely essential. We must find ways to intentionally tie our fortunes together. This, it seems to me, is what makes our divisive political and ecclesial climates so dangerous. Blind, intentional arrogance and intolerance. We are defiantly dismissing the way of the cross. It is time for intentional mediation. The Colossian Forum would do the U S Congress a world of good!

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I wonder if Roman Catholic schools show up in the data? In my experience they are remarkably mixed, far more than public schools and Protestant “Christian” schools. But, to your final point, you’ve given me permission to go to Olive Garden, where the pasta is passable. Meanwhile, thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    • Emily R Brink says:

      Thanks, both David and Daniel. Roman Catholic schools may be more mixed because so are RCC parishes. It has always struck me how the RCC is more reflective of their diverse communities than Protestant churches. Even very different monastic orders still stay within the larger institution. With Protestant churches still rooted in ethnic cultures in the U.S., plus the increasingly anti-institutional atmosphere in our society, we see too much “safety” in conformity of people “like us.”

  • Phil says:

    I read your piece and this piece,, (on the comeback of chains like Olive Garden) within a few minutes of each other. Olive Garden as locus for sociological study was not something I was expecting this morning.

  • Tony Vis says:

    Interesting information. Thanks. But you best line was saved for the last sentence in your Bio. It might be fun to sit across from you at a table at an In-and-Out! No pasta, but the fries are good.

  • Burt Rozema says:

    Thanks for this posting, David. I have noticed an unusually high level of diversity in several of the Darden chain of restaurants that we have patronized, both here in Wisconsin and our former home near Chicago. In addition to Olive Garden, that includes LongHorn, Cheddar’s, and Red Lobster. I’ve often wondered what might be the reason for this mix. I’m not familiar with the other half dozen brands in their company, but I’ll keep an eye out,

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