PROJECTThe Cost of Segregation

An earlier version of this page said that Reading, Pennsylvania, was ranked 81st for Latino-white segregation. Reading is ranked 81st for economic segregation. The data in the visualization were correct, but the description in the text’s last bulleted paragraph was wrong (corrected 3/19/18).

Efforts to implement policies addressing racial inequality and segregation have been going on for decades and recently have been joined by efforts to understand and address economic inequality and segregation. But do these forms of segregation affect entire metropolitan regions? Does separating households by income and race diminish earnings potential for all people who live and work in the same metropolitan area? Does it diminish a region’s vibrancy?

Urban’s report, The Cost of Segregation National Trends and the Case of Chicago 1990–2010, addresses these questions by analyzing the relationship between segregation and regional outcomes for the 100 most-populous commuting zones (similar to metropolitan regions) in the country, with a focus on these findings' ramifications on the Chicago region.

Our broad findings are as follows:

  • Although the spatial patterns of the nation’s urban regions are changing, they remain starkly segregated by race and income.
  • There is a real cost to segregation, which varies by race and ethnicity.
  • Chicago continues to struggle as a highly segregated metro area, which has major effects for all residents.

Read our blog post discussing the research.

This report is the first component of ongoing work with our research partner, the Metropolitan Planning Council. The council has produced a companion report discussing the implications of these findings in more detail, with a focus on the costs to the Chicago region.

Our future work will involve mapping out the implications of present-day trends on the Chicago region’s future trajectory, and assessing how policy levers could address these developments and promote more equitable pathways.

Measuring Segregation in the 100 Largest Regions

The visual below lets you compare how metropolitan regions in our study compare in economic and racial segregation. Our regions are the 100 most populous commuting zones in the country as of 1990.

Combined Economic and Racial Segregation: 100 Most Populous Commuting Zones, 2010


The map and overall rank is based on summing the 2010 individual rankings of economic, black-white, and Latino-white segregation. Note that while the lower the rank, the more segregated the region (with #1 being the most segregated region), the higher the segregation index number, the higher the segregation. Economic segregation ranges from 0.0 to 1.0, and the measure we use for racial segregation generally ranges from 1.0 to 2.0 or higher. (A full explanation of the analysis and methods can be found in our report.)

Although places with high levels of one form of segregation tend to have high levels of another, there is considerable variability in how segregation plays out across the country. For instance:

  • New York City has the highest level of economic segregation, but was 20th for black-white segregation and 11th in Latino-white segregation;
  • Milwaukee had the highest level of black-white segregation, and the second-highest level of Latino-white segregation, but ranked 35th for economic segregation; and 
  • Reading, Pennsylvania, had the highest level of Latino-white segregation, but was ranked 42nd for black-white segregation and 81st for economic segregation.


This research is based on work supported by the Urban Institute through funds provided by the Chicago Community Trust and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. We thank them for their support but acknowledge that the findings and conclusions presented in this report are those of the authors alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Urban Institute or the Metropolitan Planning Council.

Tags Racial segregation
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center