What is economic segregation, and why does it matter?

San Antonio’s challenge is not about “income inequality” — it’s about space.

To best describe San Antonio’s struggle with extreme economic disparity, you’re better off using the term “economic segregation,” not “income inequality.”

Economic segregation in San Antonio means that wealth is concentrated into very select pockets of the city. It keeps neighborhoods divided: politically, academically, and culturally. The result is a city where some places are zones of incredible opportunity while other places dramatically limit people’s ability to thrive.

Here, we’re going to explain why “economic segregation” — and not “income inequality” — is the right framework for understanding San Antonio’s most significant social challenge — and why it matters to everyone who lives in the Alamo City.

Income inequality in San Antonio

Income inequality is the term most commonly used when measuring inequality. It is usually calculated with the Gini coefficient, a classic statistical measure of how incomes are distributed within a given area.

The Gini index is measured from 0 to 1, where 0 represents perfect equality. San Antonio’s Gini coefficient score is 0.4556. This puts it as the 54th least equal metro area in the U.S., nowhere near the most unequal cities in America.

In San Antonio, extreme wealth is also not the issue. The city’s top 1 percent averaged incomes of $968,860 in 2015. That may sound like a lot of money, but it places San Antonio 125th among metro areas in the U.S. There is significant wealth here, but there is far more wealth in other places.

Income inequality, although present in the region, is not the reason San Antonio ranks so high in numerous studies of economic disparity.

Economic segregation in San Antonio

Three studies in recent years rank San Antonio with the nation’s leaders in economic segregation.


In 2012, the Pew Research Center released a report called the “Rise of Residential Segregation by Income,” featuring the Residential Income Segregation Index, or RISI.

The San Antonio-New Braunfels metropolitan area ranked first out of the 30 largest metropolitan areas on the RISI with a score of 63 (out of 100).

A high RISI score means that wealthy residents have primarily wealthy neighbors, and less well-off residents have less well-off neighbors, leading to little daily interaction between economic classes.

High RISI scores can be attributed to a myriad of factors, “including housing policies, zoning laws, real estate practices, and migration trends.”

Read more about the RISI in San Antonio here.

The Distressed Communities Index

In its 2016 Distressed Communities Index, the Economic Innovation Group included a measurement called “spatial inequality.”

Spatial inequality measured how close a zip code’s distress score was to a city’s average distress score. The distress score was composed of seven factors, including housing vacancy and high school graduation rates.

San Antonio led the nation in spatial inequality, with an inequality score of 23.7.

This score was calculated by taking the standard deviation of zip code distress scores within the city, weighting each zip code for its population.

Read more about what the DCI says about San Antonio here.

The Overall Economic Segregation Index

In 2015, Richard Florida and the Martin Prosperity Institute released the Overall Economic Segregation Index (OESI).

The OESI examined segregation in the form of income, education and occupation. It relied on the Dissimilarity Index (DSI) created by sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, which calculates the percentage of one group in (this case) a census tract that would have to move to a different census tract to make the distribution equal.

According to the OESI, San Antonio ranked third in the nation in overall economic segregation. San Antonio’s high overall score resulted from its consistent appearance on the top 10 of most of the indices measured, including segregation of the wealthy and segregation of college graduates.

Read more about what the OESI says about San Antonio here.

Why economic segregation matters

To see San Antonio’s economic segregation, one does not have to look much further than the 78258 and 78207 zip codes. The former is perched just north of Loop 1604, includes Stone Oak, and is comprised of 98 percent high school graduates. Yet, drive six miles down Blanco Road, and 78207 sees barely half of its residents hold that same diploma, a near necessity for economic mobility.

Those who reap the benefits of affluent neighborhoods enjoy greater access to resources, safer streets, higher home values, quality municipal services and better schools.

On the flip-side, disadvantaged neighborhoods are linked to increased crime, decreased educational attainment, and even increased mortality rates: One study found a 20-year difference in average lifespan between San Antonio’s wealthy and poor neighborhoods.

A low-income child born in San Antonio can expect to make 9.7 percent less than the national average by age 26. Living on the underside of economic segregation means that some do not really have the one thing Americans agree everyone should have: opportunity.

Opportunity is what makes our society prosper. For many Americans, it is not about where you start, it’s where you end up. Yet, when opportunity is taken out of the equation, what is left is relentless poverty for large swaths of the population.

Poverty persists for many reasons, and economic segregation is not itself the reason some people have less than others. Addressing it is not about giving people money or making everyone have the same things. It is not about rewarding the lazy, nor is it about taking away from the successful.

Examining economic segregation is about reinforcing the defining American principle of opportunity. And when the opportunities in San Antonio are consolidated into a few select neighborhoods, the rest of the city suffers.

Economic segregation continues to rise nationwide. San Antonio’s own segregation could rise, too, especially if the city embraces rapid growth while not addressing the repercussions of its patterns of development.

The solutions to economic segregation are varied, complex and imperfect. Yet, solutions are always being discussed and are often tested — integration through schools and economic development organizations, for starters. Many experts believe that integrating disadvantaged families into mixed-income communities is the most proven path to reducing the persistence of poverty across generations.

The presence of economic segregation is easy to see, but the importance of its impact can easily be lost in the debate on inequality. For San Antonio, its expected growth is an excellent opportunity to step back, look at why the city has developed in such a manner, and ensure a future laden with opportunity for as many San Antonians as possible.

Feature photos by Jose Arredondo / Folo Media

This article was originally published by the H.E. Butt Foundation’s Folo Media initiative in 2017.