Confronting neighborhood segregation

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About the author: Patrick Sharkey is a professor of sociology at New York University.

In 1970, 15 percent of families in the United States lived in neighborhoods where most of their neighbors were either extremely rich or extremely poor. By 2012, the percentage of families in such neighborhoods had more than doubled. More than a third of families now live in neighborhoods that can be thought of as mostly affluent, or mostly poor.1 As the level of economic inequality has risen over the past several decades, families of different economic classes have begun to move away from each other, literally, into separate communities.

And as our nation’s cities and communities have become more stratified, the life chances of those within the richest and poorest neighborhoods have become more unequal. Over the past decade or so, research from several different types of studies carried out in entirely different settings shows that growing up in a disadvantaged residential environment hurts the academic progress of children and reduces their chances to move upward in the income distribution.

This research comes from housing mobility programs such as the Dispersed Housing Program in Denver, the Moving to Opportunity program in five different cities, and the Ethel Lawrence Homes development in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, all of which showed that when children are given the chance to leave communities with concentrated poverty and violence they benefit substantially in the long run.2 And it comes from natural experiments that reveal when children are able to attend high-quality schools with diverse student populations, their academic performance begins to steadily improve.3

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Previous article: Geography of economic inequality, Kendra Bischoff

Most recently, the work of Stanford University economist Raj Chetty and his co-authors sheds light on the tremendous variation in economic opportunity across U.S. counties and commuting zones.4 This research is powerful because it makes the impact of place glaringly visible, and it demonstrates persuasively that our economic outcomes are driven not just by individual traits and skills, and not just by our parents and families, but also by the communities in which we spend our lives.5

Any agenda for economic mobility has to consider ways to confront residential segregation in America. There are two sets of approaches to confronting economic segregation and its impacts. The first set focuses on ways to invest in neighborhoods in order to make the consequences of segregation less severe, and the second set focuses on ways to reduce the level of segregation in American neighborhoods directly.

Invest in neighborhoods
where poverty is concentrated

Neighborhoods of concentrated poverty have never received the basic investments that are taken for granted in most communities across the country. While programs that confront urban poverty have come and gone, our most consistent, expensive housing investments are programs such as the home mortgage interest deduction, a tax subsidy that disproportionately goes to high-income homeowners in the nation’s wealthiest communities.6

The first approach to confronting economic segregation is to minimize its consequences by shifting investments into every low-income community across the country. Three types of investments are supported with strong evidence:

  • Provide work supports for individuals and families in high-poverty communities
  • Invest in evidence-based programs for young people
  • Identify or establish a “community quarterback” in every low-income neighborhood

Let’s examine each of these briefly in turn.

Provide work supports for individuals and families in high-poverty communities

The New Hope program provided work supports, wage supplements, and temporary, guaranteed public service jobs for low-income individuals in low-income neighborhoods of Milwaukee who were willing to work at least 30 hours per week. A randomized evaluation found that participants had higher rates of employment and higher earnings while the program was in operation. Further, children of families who took part performed better in school and showed improvements in behavior as well.7

The Jobs Plus program, carried out in five cities, provided a range of services to residents of public housing developments in order to improve their capacity to obtain and retain employment over time. The program also provided rent incentives designed to encourage work. The sites that offered the full range of services increased employment of residents by roughly 10 percent and increased earnings of participants by between 8 percent and 19 percent.8

Invest in evidence-based programs for young people

Recent demonstrations show that high-quality programs targeting youth in disadvantaged communities can have enormous impacts on their academic success and their involvement in violence. The Becoming A Man program in Chicago provides cognitive behavioral therapy combined with sports activities and lessons. Students randomly assigned to take part are more engaged in school and registered a greater than 40 percent reduction in arrests for violent crimes.9 A randomized trial providing “high-intensity” tutoring for one hour a day led to improvement in math scores equal to “an extra one to two years of learning.”10

What’s more, multiple randomized trials of summer jobs programs show that giving young people the chance to take on meaningful work in the summer, when violence is at its peak, produces substantial effects on violence and academic outcomes.11

Identify or establish a “community quarterback” in every low-income neighborhood

Stories of communities that have transformed over time, such as East Lake in Atlanta, always begin with one strong, stable institution that takes ownership over the community and takes responsibility for all of the residents within it. Purpose Built Communities—an organization that has most successfully worked to turn communities around across the country, including East Lake, calls this type of institution the “community quarterback.”12

To begin a process of change, federal resources should be combined with resources from foundations and the private sector to identify or establish a community quarterback in every low-income community across the country, so that everyone within that neighborhood knows that there is going to be an institution serving them for the long haul and will have resources sufficient to bring about long-term change.

Expand and preserve affordable housing
and provide access to areas of opportunity

The problem of affordable housing has become a crisis in cities across the country, exacerbating the consequences of concentrated poverty and creating severe hardship for low-income families. The instability at the bottom of the housing market makes it extremely difficult for families to have any chance of finding stable employment, to raise their children in stable homes and find quality schools, and to move upward in the income distribution.13

At the same time, families receiving housing assistance tend to churn through a small segment of neighborhoods that are characterized by segregation and that offer few opportunities for upward mobility.14 New approaches to housing assistance are needed in order to address the affordability crisis while also providing families with the capacity to make moves into neighborhoods and cities of opportunity.

This second set of approaches is designed to confront segregation directly, by addressing the affordability crisis while also taking active steps to create economically diverse communities at the bottom and at the top of the housing market. Specifically, this approach calls for

  • Expanding the supply of housing vouchers
  • Providing support to allow families to access opportunity neighborhoods
  • Providing incentives and regulations to preserve and expand affordable housing in exclusive markets
  • Establishing a long-range mobility bank

Each of these approaches are briefly detailed below.

Expanding the supply of housing vouchers

Only 1 in 4 families with income low enough to quality for housing assistance actually receive any form of assistance, as the supply of vouchers is nowhere near sufficient to meet the needs of low-income renters.15 A first step in addressing the problem of neighborhood segregation is to take active steps to create affordable housing. Expanding the number of housing-choice vouchers available to very low-income American families so that affordable housing is an entitlement is one straightforward policy option that has received bipartisan support.16

Providing support to allow families to access opportunity neighborhoods

Even when families do receive housing assistance, they are often left on their own to navigate the housing market without the support and information needed to find housing options in communities that may offer greater opportunities. Evidence from the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program shows that when housing assistance recipients are supported for long periods of time they are able to find and to stay in communities that offer higher-quality schools and greater economic opportunities.17 New resources are necessary to change the way housing assistance is supplied so that residents are provided support in finding units in new communities and continue to have support, for up to two years, which allows them to navigate their new environments, find transportation to new job opportunities, and locate the right schools for their children.

Providing incentives and regulations to preserve and expand affordable housing in exclusive markets

Growing demand in select U.S. cities, combined with rigid restrictions on real estate development, have created soaring housing prices in some cities and made it difficult for middle- and low-income families to take advantage of new opportunities in hot markets. To preserve affordable housing in such cities, the federal government can provide incentives for local cities and organizations to take active steps to utilize creative ways to take housing out of the market and keep it affordable.

Two approaches are community land trusts and inclusionary zoning. Community land trusts are sections of land that are owned by non-profit organizations and can be sold or rented to families at prices below the local market rate. The federal government also can provide incentives for local jurisdictions to implement mandatory inclusionary zoning plans, which require developers to include a percentage of affordable units in any new development.18

Both community land trusts and inclusionary zoning are designed to maintain mixed-income communities in markets where housing prices are rising rapidly. In other jurisdictions that have never provided affordable housing, the federal government must continue efforts begun under the Obama Administration to assist local jurisdictions in their efforts to comply with the rule requiring comprehensive plans for affirmatively furthering fair housing. The effort to gradually enforce compliance with this longstanding rule is crucial to breaking down barriers to economically diverse communities in jurisdictions that have resisted the requirement to provide affordable housing.19

Establishing a long-range mobility bank

Long-range residential mobility, which brings families into different parts of the country with greater economic opportunities, has always been a mechanism for upward mobility. Yet migration into new parts of the country has declined over time, particularly for black Americans. Jens Ludwig at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and Steve Raphael at the University of California-Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy propose the idea of a “mobility bank” to encourage long-range moves that are risky to individuals and families, and exceedingly uncommon.20 The mobility bank would provide loans for individuals and families that allow them to make long distance moves away from distressed areas and into places that offer greater opportunities.

End Notes

1. Sean Reardon and Kendra Bischoff, “The Continuing Increase in Income Segregation, 2007-2012,” (2016) Retrieved from Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis, and available at

2. Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence Katz, “The Effects of Exposure to Better Neighborhoods on Children: New Evidence from the Moving to Opportunity Experiment,” (NBER Working Paper No. 21156), (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2015).
George Galster, Anna Santiago, Jessica Lucero, and Jackie Cutsinger, “Adolescent Neighborhood
Context and Young Adult Economic Outcomes for Low-Income African Americans and Latinos,” Journal of Economic Geography (online 2015; DOI:10.1093/jeg/lbv004).
Douglas S. Massey, Len Albright, Rebecca Casciano, Elizabeth Derickson, and David N. Kinsey, Climbing Mount Laurel: The struggle for affordable housing and social mobility in an American suburb. (2013) Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

3. Will Dobbie and Roland G. Fryer Jr., “Are high-quality schools enough to increase achievement among the poor? Evidence from the Harlem Children’s Zone,” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 3, no. 3 (2011): 158-187. Heather Schwartz, “Housing Policy Is School Policy: Economically Integrative Housing Promotes Academic Success in Montgomery County, MD,” (New York: The Century Foundation, 2010).

4. Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, and Emmanuel Saez, “Where is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the US,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 129, no. 4 (2014): 1553-1623.

5. Raj Chetty and Nathan Hendren, “The Effects of Neighborhoods on Children’s Long-Term Outcomes: Quasi-Experimental Estimates for the United States,” (Cambridge, MA: Equality of Opportunity Project Working Paper, 2015).

6. Will Fischer and Chye-Ching Huang, “Mortgage Interest Deduction Is Ripe for Reform,” (2013) and retrieved from Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

7. Greg J. Duncan, Aletha C. Huston, and Thomas S. Weisner, Higher Ground: New Hope for the Working Poor and Their Children, (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2009).

8. Howard S. Bloom, James A. Riccio, Nandita Verma, and Johanna Walter, “Promoting Work in Public Housing. The Effectiveness of Jobs-Plus. Final Report.” (New York: Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, 2005).

9. See University of Chicago Crime Lab:

10. See University of Chicago Crime Lab:

11. Sara B. Heller, “Summer jobs reduce violence among disadvantaged youth,” Science 346, no. 6214 (2014): 1219-23. Amy Ellen Schwartz, Jacob Leos-Urbel, and Matthew Wiswall, “Making Summer Matter: The Impact of Youth Employment on Academic Performance,” (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2015).

12. See Purpose Built Communities available at

13. Matthew Desmond, Evicted (New York: Penguin Random House, 2016).

14. Patrick Sharkey, “Residential Mobility and the Reproduction of Unequal Neighborhoods,” Cityscape 114 (2012): 9-32.

15. The Joint Center for Housing Studies, “State of the Nation’s Housing 2016,” retrieved at:

16. Desmond, Evicted; Bipartisan Policy Center, “Housing America’s Future: New Directions for National Policy,” (2013) and retrieved at:

17. Lora Engdahl, “New Homes, New Neighborhoods, New Schools: A Progress Report on the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program,” (Washington, DC: Poverty and Race Research Action Council, 2009), retrieved at:

18. For examples see: Peter Medoff and Holly Sklar, Streets of hope: The fall and rise of an urban neighborhood, (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1994); National Low Income Housing Coalition, “40 Years Ago: Montgomery County, Maryland Pioneers Inclusionary Zoning, ” (2014),

19. Alan Berube and Natalie Holmes, “Affirmatively furthering fair housing: Considerations for the new geography of poverty,” (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2015),

20. All details can be found in the original proposal: Jens Ludwig and Stephen Raphael, “The Mobility Bank: Increasing Residential Mobility to Boost Economic Mobility,” (Washington, DC: The Hamilton Project, 2010),

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