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Shifting Barriers


28 November 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE HARTFORD COURANT. All rights reserved. 

The suburban population surrounding Hartford is becoming more economically and ethnically diverse. Poverty and minority status are less of a barrier to entering the suburbs. But barriers are moving rather than falling. As the city shrinks, the divide between city and suburbs is giving way to new differences between suburban towns.

The suburban population (the 57 towns of the metro area surrounding the city) reached 1.06 million by 2000, up by only 44,000 since 1990. Between 1990 and 2000 the number of suburban non-Hispanic whites (hereafter referred to as "whites") declined by 31,000. Suburban growth was entirely attributable to minority increase: The suburbs gained 31,000 African Americans, 29,000 Hispanics and 9,000 Asians.

Hartford was 45 percent white in 1980, 30 percent white in 1990 and 18 percent white in 2000. If the prospects for racial or ethnic group mixing were declining within the city, did increased minority presence in the suburbs compensate with more mixing? Not really.

Whites were sprawling outward. The number of whites in Hartford in 2000 was half what it had been in 1990. Between 1990 and 2000 at least a quarter of the whites were gone from New Britain, East Hartford and Bloomfield; at the same time there was an increase of at least 20 percent in the number of whites in Colchester, East Hampton, East Haddam and Hebron. In general, towns with lower poverty and smaller populations were drawing the largest increases in whites. African Americans and Hispanics were increasing in towns where whites were most likely to be leaving. The net result was that African Americans and Hispanics of the metro area were about as segregated from whites in 2000 as they were in 1980.

Hispanic populations were growing at an especially rapid pace. The Hispanic population is quite youthful and became more so during the 1990s, as a consequence of the greater propensity of younger people to migrate (largely from Puerto Rico) and the fact that Hispanics have more children than the native white population.

Families with young children were especially important to the growth of Hartford's suburban Hispanic population during the 1990s. This can be seen, for example, in the combined population of three towns that had an especially high growth of Hispanics: East Hartford, Bristol and Manchester. The number of Hispanics under age 15 increased by 3,100 during the 1990s. The contrast with whites is striking. In these same towns white families with young children were the segment of the population most likely to leave. The number of whites under age 15 declined by 4,100. In 1990, 85 percent of children under 15 were white; by 2000, 63 percent were white. Thus, the schools were likely to reveal one of the earliest and clearest signs of population change, and this was surely a factor in further change.

Residential changes are a result of both "push" and "pull" factors: A desire to move to what are viewed as better homes, jobs and communities and away from environments viewed as less desirable. The number of Hispanics has risen in virtually every town in the metro area. But for many, especially those recently arriving in the mainland United States, severe financial constraints limit residential choice. Minorities are separated from whites in part because of differences in the homes they can afford. In the suburbs of Hartford in 2000 the median household income was $34,771 among Hispanics, $44,395 among African Americans and $58,107 among whites. The income gap between whites and the other groups increased during the 1990s.

Even those with low income found significant opportunities for improving their lives. For many there was upward mobility in moving here from Puerto Rico and from Hartford to the suburbs. During the 1990s Hispanic poor were moving away from suburban towns where Hispanics were most impoverished (New Britain, Windham, Bristol and Middletown). But as the Hispanic poor grew most rapidly in the suburban towns with low poverty, the poverty rose appreciably in those destinations. Gains for individual families may have simultaneously contributed to relative decline for the town.

Another outcome of the growing dispersion of Hispanic poor across the suburbs was that Hispanic poor were less separated from Hispanic non-poor. This greater income diversity among Hispanics, however, came with increased separation of white non-poor from Hispanic non-poor. Thus, many prosperous Hispanics who had been attracted to suburban towns in prior years found that the 1990s brought both growing poverty and fewer whites in their communities.

There were also signs of change coming to towns where more prosperous white families had surged. During the 1990s these towns grew because parents of the baby-boom generation and their children were moving in. But this was a passing population wave. There is no comparable generation coming to buy the large houses that will be on the market as the baby-boom generation empties the nest, retires and downsizes. For example, in Avon (median home sale price in 2004: $361,665) there are large stretches of tree-covered hills that over the past decade sprouted homes with either three- or four-car garages. A decade hence, "For Sale" signs could prove an enduring part of this landscape.

In sum, the people moving into and between the suburbs were indeed very diverse, but ethnicity and economics strongly influenced their destinations. One important message, however, is that the town boundaries are weak containers. We would do better looking for ways of solving metro area problems rather than trying to separate ourselves from them.

Michael P. Sacks is a professor of sociology at Trinity College.

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