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America’s Distinctly Unequal Playing Fields

Teenagers are learning lessons — about inequality — on America’s high school gridirons. When are their elders going to catch on?
Income inequality will go a long way to determining who wins and who loses this fall on America's high school football fields

Income inequality will go a long way to determining who prevails this fall on America’s high school football fields

This weekend, in thousands of communities across the United States, millions of Americans will gather for one of the nation’s most time-honored autumn rituals: the high school football game.

Shoulder pads will thump. Spirals will whistle through the air. Cheerleaders will chant. And economic inequality will be the furthest thing from anybody’s mind.

A mistake. Gridiron savvy won’t determine the outcome of many of the games played this weekend. Inequality will. So suggests some quirky new research from analyst Eric Segal for the Massachusetts-based Class Action.

Segal has matched won-loss records for all the high schools in Eastern Massachusetts with the median incomes of the communities the high schools serve. His number crunching has uncovered a clear pattern. Teams from richer towns regularly win. Teams from poorer towns regularly lose.

To be more specific: The top 10 schools by income win over 60 percent of their games. The bottom 10 lose over 60 percent. Not one single school in the bottom 20 by median income has an overall winning record. In Massachusetts high school sports, the “level playing field” has essentially disappeared.

In high school sports, the level playing field has essentially disappeared.

We don’t have any comparable data for the nation as a whole. But the Massachusetts pattern most likely prevails throughout the United States. The reason? Throughout the nation, as in Massachusetts, America’s communities are growing more segregated by income.

Back in 1970, sociologists Sean Reardon and Kendra Bischoff have detailed, 65 percent of America’s families lived in “middle-income” situations, in neighborhoods where incomes ranged from 80 to 125 percent of the median, or most typical, income of the larger metro area.

By 2008, only 43 percent of U.S. families lived in middle-income neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, over that same four-decade span, the share of families living in either predominantly poor or rich neighborhoods soared over 60 percent.

A generation ago, in other words, most high school football games pitted teams from school districts with similar income bases. Today’s games don’t. High school games these days are routinely pitting teams from communities with ample resources against communities without.

Our increasing economic segregation wreaks havoc on much more than the games our kids play.

That’s not fair, of course, to the kids involved. But if our contemporary economic segregation only led to lopsided scores at high school football games, we could as a society probably survive quite nicely.

Our increasing economic segregation, unfortunately, wreaks havoc on much more than the games our kids play. The more we live starkly divided in rich and poor neighborhoods and communities, researchers Sean Reardon and Kendra Bischoff point out, the more unequal our exposure to crime and pollution and other social and environmental hazards.

The more economically segregated our communities, economist Joseph Stiglitz adds, the more unequal our exposure to economic opportunity.

The poor increasingly can’t afford to live where the jobs may be, Stiglitz explains. They have to somehow manage to get from their own neighborhoods “to part-time, low-paying and increasingly scarce jobs at distant work sites.”

“Combine this urban sprawl with inadequate public transportation systems,” the Nobel laureaute notes, “and you have a blueprint for transforming working-class communities into depopulated ghettos.”

We experience economic segregation on a myriad of different fronts, agrees David Dante Troutt of the Rutgers Center on Law in Metropolitan Equity. We “see it in the quality of local schools and their test scores, smell it in the access to healthy food or not, feel it in a sense of safety or danger as we walk the streets.”

We experience economic segregation on a myriad of different fronts.

Overall, economist Rebecca Diamond from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business has just calculated, the sort of “economic well-being inequality” that Troutt evokes increased 67 per cent between 1980 and 2000. If current trends continue, she predicts, “you’re going to see even more segregation.”

The most powerful of these trends? That would be, argue sociologists Reardon and Bischoff, “the rapid growth in income inequality in the United States.”

The more income concentrates, the two researchers note, the more those with the most income concentrate themselves geographically. The more they isolate themselves, the less they interact with people of less affluent class backgrounds. The less they interact, the less willing they become “to invest in shared public resources or to support equality-generating social policies.”

We wind up with school districts that can’t afford to field high school sports teams unless students pony up $600 per season to participate. And we could wind up, New York Times analyst Eduardo Porter observes, with much worse.

“Growing inequality of income,” Porter wrote last week, “could become the last nail in public education’s coffin” as residential segregation “cordons off rich school districts from the poor and reduces support for public education among the wealthy Americans who can opt out.”

Sign-up for Too MuchWe can certainly slow this segregation, David Dante Troutt of the Center on Law in Metropolitan Equity relates, with targeted policy reform initiatives.

Tax base revenue sharing, for instance, can “help struggling areas enjoy the benefits of regional growth.” Inclusionary zoning — requiring developers to set aside a share of new housing for lower-income families — can “embed affordable housing” into more affluent communities.

But if income inequality writ large keeps increasing, resistance to strategies like these will only get more potent. Segregation now. Segregation forever.

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