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Chicago's Rich Kids Live In An 'Affluence Bubble,' Report Says

By Sophie Lucido Johnson in News on May 12, 2016 6:27PM

A mirage version of Chicago's skyline (photo by Seth Brown)

Chicago's infamous segregation problem is evident, almost no matter which neighborhood you visit. A new study focused on how it affects children in particular found that children in affluent families in Chicago (and its suburbs) are more likely to be isolated from lower-income residents than in most other U.S. metro areas.

Income segregation is higher for families with kids in Chicago than most U.S. urban centers, and its relative increase may be due to the city's struggling and messy school system. The study by Professor Ann Owens, a Chicago native, found that income segregation is particularly high for families with children (in fact, households without kids are increasingly less segregated by income). In Chicago, households with kids face income segregation that is higher than it is in 70 of 100 largest U.S. cities.

Of the students enrolled in Chicago Public Schools, 86 percent are economically disadvantaged, according to CPS' website. In Chicago, where you can't talk about class without also talking about institutionalized racism, it also bears noting that just 9.4 percent of CPS' students are white. (As a point of comparison, 45.3 percent of the city's total population is white, according to the latest Census data.) Schools with high performance scores, public and private, attract families with higher incomes. This creates what Owens calls an "affluence bubble." As people who can afford to move to neighborhoods close to top schools, those neighborhoods become more expensive to live in. It's a vicious cycle.

Nearby Chicago suburbs Winnetka and Highland Park boast the best school districts in the state according to the consulting group Niche. The per capita income in Highland Park is nearly $70,000 (and the median is $115,000); in Winnetka, the per capita income is $202,867.

Owens' report found that income segregation for families rose about 6 percent between 2000 and 2010, when the last U.S. Census was taken. She predicted that the school closings and ongoing problems with public schools in the city are almost certainly increasing income segregation. As Chicago's school system becomes more confusing—charter schools, magnet schools, and alternative schools are sprouting up amidst traditional public schools, and can be hard to navigate—parents opt for suburbs where a good school is a guarantee.

According to Crains, University of Illinois at Chicago professor Janet Smith analyzed the 2010 Census data and found that about 65 percent of the 200,000 people the city of Chicago lost over the prior decade were under 18, meaning that the vast majority of people leaving the city were families. As affluent families leave, children in low-income families become more isolated. There are less networking opportunities across classes, reinforcing the lack of resources that have long plagued poor neighborhoods.