Rapid suburbanization brings gains for Black families, losses for urban neighborhoods

African-American family dines at home in suburban neighborhood

The path to better neighborhoods for Black households largely has come through moving to the suburbs, instead of by improving majority-Black city neighborhoods, new research finds. City neighborhoods have seen their Black populations plummet as the suburban Black population has boomed.

In the paper “Black Suburbanization and the Evolution of Spatial Inequality Since 1970,” Alexander Bartik and Evan Mast tracked populations of 40 of the largest cities in the U.S. since 1970, finding that the Black population dropped in nearly every city. High-poverty and majority-Black neighborhoods lost 60 percent of their Black population and 40 percent of their total population.

The Black population in the suburbs of these cities rose drastically – from 4 million to 13 million – while declining in the central cities. During this time, high-income Black families became less likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods, driving a trend of income segregation among Black households.

It’s not just high-income families; Bartik and Mast found that people who move to suburbs from neighborhoods that are more than 80 percent Black tend to move into neighborhoods with higher socioeconomic status and higher housing costs than their old neighborhoods. They’ve largely kept their gains as well, with the neighborhood income of the average Black individual increasing in the suburbs while falling in cities.

This stems, in part, from a lower incidence of “white flight” – white families moving out of neighborhoods with the arrival of Black families – in latter-day suburbs than what cities experienced during the Great Migration. Meanwhile, in cities, the predominately young participants in the Great Migration aged. Their death rate increased and fertility rate dropped, contributing to the urban population decline.

Bartik and Mast write that the research is the first dedicated economic analysis of Black suburbanization, a development that is key to understanding current and future demographic trends. “In the same way that the geography of race in the 20th century can only be understood in the context of the Great Migration,” they write, “Black suburbanization and these associated trends are essential background for research and policy related to geographic racial disparities in the present.”


Research Topics: Local Labor Markets