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Disadvantages are accumulated by generations living in poor areas that prevent social mobility and perpetuate racial inequality, finds latest research.
Policy makers are drawn to quick fixes, with clear wins. But transforming the lives of disadvantaged people requires a different approach. Research demonstrates that disadvantages experienced over time linger to affect the opportunities of family members over multiple generations. Children’s life chances are affected not just by their current circumstances, but by the experiences and opportunities of their parents and grandparents. Effective policies must disrupt a multigenerational pattern of disadvantage in a way that can withstand fluctuations and shifts in policy and political mood.
We have studied the historical effects of poverty, using a survey that has followed thousands of American families since 1968. Like other researchers before us, we found that the test scores of children are lower when they grow up in neighborhoods with high levels of poverty. But they are much lower if both the child and his or her parents were raised in high-poverty environments, even when compared with other children from families that look identical except for these neighborhood conditions.
“We cannot rely on policies that change a family’s, or a community’s, circumstances over merely a short time. The focus must be on more durable urban policies.”
How is multigenerational disadvantage passed down? Parents raised in poor neighborhoods tend to get less education and go to lower-quality schools. They have fewer economic opportunities when they reach early adulthood and are more likely to have physical and mental health problems. The consequences of growing up in a poor neighborhood don’t disappear when people reach adulthood and start to have their own children. Rather, they affect their capacity to raise their own children, the resources they have available for parenting, and the residential environments in which they form their own households. Through all of these pathways and many others, the effects of a childhood in a disadvantaged neighborhood persist over time and hurt the life chances of the next generation.
This picture is particularly worrying for African Americans, compared with white families. In about half of African American families, we found that both children and their parents were raised in poor neighborhoods. This was true for just 7 percent of white families. This reality has major implications for racial inequality. A big part of the reason that African American families have been more likely than whites to experience downward economic mobility is that even middle-class black families live in communities with lower-quality schools, fewer economic opportunities, and higher rates of poverty. This type of neighborhood disadvantage is commonly passed on across generations of African American families.
The multigenerational nature of neighborhood inequality means that we can’t rely on short-term, piecemeal policies. The focus must move to durable urban policies.
Most communities in America take for granted the types of durable investments that allow them to grow and thrive. The US has seen massive and sustained investment in some neighborhoods through, for example, the direct provision of mortgages that have been restricted to certain segments of the population, and massive tax incentives, such as the home mortgage interest deduction, which disproportionately benefits the wealthiest homeowners in the most affluent communities. However, this type of federal investment has never been extended to low-income communities of color.
Meanwhile, countless examples of programs, intended to confront urban disadvantage, have been diluted or abandoned before they had any chance to achieve transformative change. One recent example is the “Moving to Opportunities” program, a US experiment whereby families in public housing received vouchers allowing them to be reassigned to low-poverty neighborhoods. In some ways, the families’ lives changed considerably. Parents’ mental health improved dramatically, levels of obesity dropped, and parents reported greater overall wellbeing. But outcomes for the children were much more mixed. More than a decade after the experiment began, these families were usually back in neighborhoods that looked very much like the ones from which they had come. The policy took them out of a poor neighborhood, but it was insufficient to sustain a long-term change in their residential environments.
An alternative model of housing assistance comes from the Gautreaux Project, a mobility program that began in the 1970s. It was a US housing-desegregation project, whereby the US Supreme Court ordered the Chicago Housing Authority to provide scattered-site housing for public housing residents living in isolated public housing projects in concentrated areas of poverty. The program brought families into neighborhoods all across Chicago’s suburbs, where many of the families have remained generations later. Their children achieved greater success in school and in the labor force than did children in the communities they left behind.
The lesson of these two programs and of our research is that tackling the long-term impact of neighborhood disadvantage requires sustained investments in communities or a sustained change of environment. Social mobility programs should focus on helping families make moves that bring them into a diverse set of communities and should then support them in those new neighborhoods. That can be done by playing a more active role in finding new apartments for families and devoting more resources to housing counseling and other supports for families after they move. We have models of programs that have done this successfully, and it can be done again. But it requires a long-term commitment to confronting neighborhood inequality that has been missing from US social policy.
Sharkey PT (2009), Neighborhoods and the Black-White Mobility Gap, Economic Mobility Project
Sharkey PT (2013), Stuck in place: Urban neighborhoods and the end of progress toward racial equality, University of Chicago Press