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Income Segregation: Understanding the Underlying Processes through Political and Structural Forces


Income segregation is not merely a physical separation between income groups, but is a core driving force that perpetuates inequality. Existing research indicates that people in affluent neighborhoods are likely to benefit from many social advantages—including safety, quality of public resources and private services, job opportunities, and social networks—often referred to as the “geography of opportunities.” On the other hand, poverty can be transmitted to the next generation, as poor neighborhoods often present fewer opportunities. However, scholars have approached income segregation mostly from the market-oriented perspective, which limits our understanding on the full picture of income segregation. By focusing on structural and political factors, this three-essay dissertation presents the persistence of neighborhoods in terms of economic status and the inequality among municipalities within U.S. metropolitan areas in terms of their resource availability. This work analyzes data from multiple sources including the GeoLyticss Neighborhood Change Database, ReferenceUSA, and National Land Cover Database by utilizing quantitative methods, including k-means clustering and multilevel regression models.

The first essay shows that neighborhoods within the 105 largest U.S. metropolitan areas were likely to maintain their economic status from 1980 to 2010, and the neighborhood change toward either greater affluence or poverty were spatially clustered. This research focuses on the changing trends of neighborhood-level economic status and explores their spatial structure as well as longitudinal transition by utilizing a decomposition of income segregation, which cannot be specified by using the traditional global measures.

The second essay investigates the mechanisms of affluent and poor neighborhoods’ persistence in their economic status between 2000 and 2010. The results show that affluent neighborhoods, which often have advocacy groups with many economic resources and political connections to powerful elites, tend to enter the redevelopment stage earlier than poor neighborhoods. Consequently, economic polarization of neighborhoods is intensified as affluent neighborhoods are more effective in resisting decline or negative neighborhood change, compared to poor neighborhoods. While literature in the field traditionally has focused on the natural process of neighborhood change based on the ecological perspective, this research contributes by showing how neighborhoods with varying economic statuses experience change, especially decline generated by ecological and economic forces.

The third essay explores the relationship between the hierarchy of economic status across municipalities within the greater Los Angeles region and the unequal distribution of community resources. By conducting a cross-sectional cluster analysis in 2010, this research shows how high-income and economically homogeneous municipalities have better access to community amenities and resources, such as foods, schools, healthcare facilities, cultural amenities, parks, and social services, compared to poorer municipalities, which may reinforce their economically homogeneous environments.

As a whole, this dissertation focuses on the underlying mechanisms of income segregation. The results generally indicate that income segregation will be intensified not only because of the rise of income inequality but also due to the structural and political factors that fortify the initial economic hierarchy of places, suggesting the necessity for policy intervention to address the consequent inequalities.

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