05 October 2023

People with the same level of income increasingly live in the same kind of areas. This is shown in new research from Linköping University, where changes in income segregation in Sweden have been investigated for almost 30 years. This development is most apparent for people with children.

Porträtt av Selcan Mutgan.
Selcan Mutgan has studied income segregation in Sweden between 1990 and 2017. Jonas Roslund

In recent decades, the income gap in Sweden has tripled on average. Differences have increased faster in Sweden than in any other OECD country.

From the United States, it is known that increased income inequality goes hand in hand with an increased separation of people in terms of where they live, so-called income segregation. Researcher Selcan Mutgan at Linköping University and her colleague Jonathan Mijs at the University of Boston have investigated whether the same also applies in a European country like Sweden.

“Previous research shows that where you live is becoming increasingly important for your prospects. Children in poorer areas who never meet more highly educated people, for example, tend to have lower education levels later in life,” says Selcan Mutgan.

An illustration of increased income differences in Sweden’s three metropolitan municipalities. An illustration of increased income differences in Sweden’s three metropolitan municipalities. It presents the percentage difference between income in different residential areas and the median income in the municipality in 1990 and 2017.

In an article in the journal Sociological Science, the researchers describe the results of their investigation. Using data from Statistics Sweden, they have analysed what all the residents of Sweden’s 231 largest municipalities earned and in what areas they lived during the years 1990–2017. A more detailed review has been made of developments in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö.

Most noticable for people with children

The analysis shows that the increase in income segregation is almost as high in Sweden as in the United States. There is a statistically significant correlation with increased income inequality.

The richest people are the most segregated in the big cities, but that has not really changed in 30 years. The segregation of the poorest ten percent of the population is also largely unchanged. The big difference is for people in the income level just above that. They increasingly rarely live in the same areas as middle-income and upper-middle-income earners.

Portrait of Jonathan Mijs at Boston UniversityJonathan Mijs is an Assistant Professor in Sociology at Boston University. This change is most noticeable in people with children. In this group, income segregation tripled between 1990 and 2017, while it slightly more than doubled for people without children.

Selcan Mutgan believes that the increase in income segregation among people with children may be attributed to parents' school choices for their children. Parents in higher income groups can afford to move closer to the schools they want their children to attend, while parents with lower incomes are more limited in their residential choices.

More difficult for immigrants to move

But the researchers have also examined how income segregation has changed within the native Swede group and within the non-Westerner group. It was found that although income inequality increases in both groups in the same way, income segregation is lower in the non-Westerner group. In other words, they do not move when they get a higher income, and this distinguishes Sweden from a country like the United States.

“It may be because of the housing market in Sweden. It’s increasingly difficult to find affordable housing, especially for immigrants who usually earn less than native Swedes,” says Selcan Mutgan.

But the more detailed reasons for this change need to be investigated more, according to the researchers. They both agree that it should be a wake-up call for politicians in both Sweden and other countries.

“Because it’s one thing to have a society where some people are just more affluent than others. It’s quite another to have a society where rich and poor are just leading completely disconnected lives. Because that undermines solidarity, it undermines just simple empathy and understanding of each other. And that can be a real polarising force in society”, says Jonathan Mijs.

Translation: Simon Phillips

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