The True Cost of Segregation
March 30, 2017 | Perspectives | Chicago Commitment, Policy Research

$4.4 billion in lost earnings; a 30 percent higher homicide rate; 83,000 fewer bachelor’s degrees received. These numbers represent the real costs the Chicago region bears due to its high levels of economic and racial segregation, according to a report by the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) and the Urban Institute, supported by MacArthur and the Chicago Community Trust. The Chicago region is the fifth most segregated after Philadelphia, Bridgeport, New York, and Milwaukee and just ahead of Cleveland, Newark, Los Angeles, Kansas City, and Detroit.


That the Chicago metro area is among the most racially and economically segregated regions in the country is not news. But what is new, thanks to the report analysis, is a deeper, more nuanced understanding of how both types of segregation work together to limit human potential and prosperity for everyone in the region, not just those in the poorest towns and neighborhoods. Indeed, our fates are far more intertwined than many might acknowledge.

There is more evidence than ever that where one lives matters to individual health, well-being, and educational success. This area of research was recently reinvigorated when economist and MacArthur Fellow Raj Chetty and his colleagues released groundbreaking evidence on the effect of place on intergenerational economic mobility.

Dr. Chetty and his co-authors find that upward mobility (i.e., the likelihood that children will move up the income ladder relative to their parents) is strongly correlated with five key attributes of a place: segregation, inequality, school quality, social capital, and family structure. Rates of upward economic mobility are vastly different between counties in the Chicago region. DuPage County offers the best chances for upward economic mobility in the entire country, while Cook County is among the areas that offer the worst.

MPC and Urban assert that if the level of economic and racial segregation in the Chicago region were reduced to the median level of segregation among the 100 most populous regions in the country (e.g., Atlanta, Houston, and Raleigh-Durham), we could literally save lives, improve educational achievement, increase earnings, and generate economic activity.

For example, if segregation in our region had been at the median level in 2010, the city’s homicide rate would have been 30 percent lower. This would translate to 167 lives saved in that year, resulting in $170 million in cumulative lifetime earnings, and millions of dollars saved in policing and corrections costs. In 2016, in the city of Chicago alone, this would have meant 229 fewer lives lost to homicide.


The report points us to the idea that homicide prevention is about more than gun regulation or increasing policing, but rather a holistic set of approaches that address a range of underlying causes that lead to increased gun violence, including those highlighted by the latest report from the University of Chicago Crime Lab.


Similarly, the report suggests that enhancing educational achievement and bachelor degree attainment might not simply require doubling down on school improvements. There are housing policies that enable low- and moderate-income students and racial and ethnic minority students to attend better performing schools, yielding improved math and reading scores over time, without harming the performance of other students.

Like this example tested in Montgomery County, MD, there are other evidence-based ideas and approaches that the region’s leaders can pursue that would seek to address the region’s longstanding history of racial and economic segregation. We look forward to the next phase of the research that will identify a set of policies to do just that.

If we believe in a just Chicago region – that everyone deserves a fair shot, that we cannot truly be equal if we live, learn, and work so separately – then we need to act on this study’s findings. If we believe, too, that a rising tide lifts all boats, then we must aim to ensure that the legacy of both racial and economic segregation that exists in the region today does not stem the tide.

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