How Diverse Neighborhoods Spur Economic Mobility: An Interview with Patrick Sharkey

Even for the generation of African Americans that came of age after the civil rights era, there has been little progress on economic equality, sociologist Patrick Sharkey writes in his new book, Stuck in Place. Drawing on national data, he shows that inequality persists because disadvantage is concentrated in neighborhoods and passed from generation to generation. Sharkey spoke with America's Tomorrow about strategies to change this legacy and build prosperous cities for all.

Years of research show that neighborhood environments are key to understanding racial inequity. What's new in your argument?

We have to think about where black and white children have lived, and where their families have lived, over long periods of time. Not just where families live at a given point in time but where families have lived over multiple generations. When we do that, we see that differences in the types of neighborhoods occupied by black and white Americans look much more severe. These differences in the types of environments in which families have lived over time go a long way towards explaining the persistence of racial inequality.

Why is this long view important?

The vast majority of African American families who are currently in poor neighborhoods — about 80 percent — have lived in similarly poor neighborhoods for at least two generations, even if they've moved from one place to another.  That's true for about half of the small percentage of white families currently in poor neighborhoods. For black Americans, neighborhood poverty is a continuation of neighborhood disadvantage that has been experienced for long periods of time. That's important because the impact of growing up in a poor neighborhood is cumulative. It doesn't exist at a single point in time and then disappear.

What are the cumulative impacts?

When children are raised in a poor neighborhood, it affects their schooling environment and the social networks they form. There's very good evidence that it affects their mental health.  It affects their economic opportunities as they move from childhood to young adulthood. Through all these pathways, growing up in a poor neighborhood affects multiple dimensions of people's lives and then, in turn, it affects the next generation.

To what extent can neighborhood change break the cycle?

When neighborhoods become more diverse, absorb new immigrant populations, and become less economically disadvantaged, meaning more jobs come in, the children in those neighborhoods benefit substantially. I found large improvements in economic outcomes much later in life among kids who lived in neighborhoods where poverty became less concentrated. Reducing the concentration of disadvantage is important for economic mobility.

What two or three policies would significantly reduce the concentration of disadvantage?

I'd start with large-scale mandatory inclusionary zoning policies, to break down economic segregation. And I'd focus on integrating the formerly incarcerated population back into the communities by providing economic opportunities to people as they return from prison.  We need to find ways to make sure that the poor and non-white segments of the urban population are not living in separate communities from wealthy, predominantly white segments of the population. The separation of populations across the city allows for political abandonment. It allows for more and more unequal distribution of resources across communities.

How do we simultaneously improve neighborhood environments and protect against displacement?

We need to require that every locality build its fair share of affordable housing. And at a political level, we have to make sure that low-income representatives of low-income communities play a bigger role in all decisions about how land is used. Not just those that affect their own communities but decisions about zoning and housing across the city.

What investments would you like to see to improve life chances for youth of color?

Investments have to be made to create stable institutions in their communities. The most notable institution is the schools but I'm also talking about childcare centers, after-school programs, religious institutions, police departments working with the community, and anti-violence groups.

You argue for "durable" urban policy. What does that mean?

First, it's policies that have the capacity to disrupt multigenerational patterns of neighborhood inequality — not just to affect children but also to reach their parents. Second, it's policies that generate transformative changes in places and in family's lives. We can't have short-term investments in communities that are abandoned after a few years of implementation. Third, it's policies that have the capacity to withstand fluctuations in the political mood and the business cycle.

These criteria may sound overly optimistic but the truth is we have made these commitments to communities across the country. It's only low-income communities of color that have been excluded from these types of major and sustained investments. I'm really arguing that the commitments that have been made to communities across the country be extended to these communities.

Read the rest of the June 27, 2014 America’s Tomorrow: Equity is the Superior Growth Model issue.