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"Place Matters Even More than We Thought: New Insights on the Persistence of Racial Inequality,"

by Margery Austin Turner July/August 2013 issue of Poverty & Race

Patrick Sharkey’s new book, Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality, makes a huge contribution to both scholarship and policy debate about racial inequality and the role of neighborhood segregation. Like Denton and Massey’s American Apartheid and Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged, Stuck in Place marshals data and rigorous statistical analysis to reframe our understanding about these stubbornly complex problems. Sharkey sheds new light on the persistence of racial inequality, forcing us to confront our tragic lack of progress in closing the income gap between blacks and whites. He makes creative use of survey data that track parents and children over several decades, revealing new insights on intergenerational effects of living in severely distressed neighborhoods. And he applies these new insights to what’s become a rather stale debate about “people versus place,” articulating instead the need for “durable urban policies.”

Persistence of Racial Inequality

We are all familiar with the discouraging evidence of persistent gaps in economic outcomes for whites and blacks. Sharkey shows that—although the U.S. made significant progress in narrowing those gaps during the 1960s and 70s—the gains since then have been minimal. And it’s not just that a disproportionate share of blacks have been trapped in poverty while many others have achieved middle- and upper-income success. The share of blacks in the poorest fifth of the income distribution is only slightly lower today than it was in 1971, and the share in the richest fifth is only slightly higher. In fact, the cohort of blacks born after the end of legally sanctioned discrimination and segregation is actually doing worse economically than their parents’ generation. While many whites who grew up in middle-income families have higher incomes than their parents did, the opposite is true for a majority of blacks.

Intergenerational Neighborhood Effects

Sharkey’s biggest contribution comes from his analysis of neighborhood effects. Many scholars have addressed the question of how neighborhood conditions (like poverty, crime and unemployment) affect outcomes for individual adults and children. One of the most common criticisms of research on this topic is that it overstates the causal connection, because people with problems (like low incomes, weak job skills or criminal involvement) “choose”—or are constrained to—problem neighborhoods. If this is the case, the argument goes, conditions in the neighborhood may be caused by the characteristics of people living there, rather than vice versa. So researchers investigating neighborhood effects go to enormous lengths to control for individual and family characteristics to estimate the independent effects of neighborhood conditions.

Sharkey’s analysis suggests that this kind of narrow, “all else being equal” analysis may obscure the most important effects of neighborhoods. He makes a compelling case that neighborhood conditions during childhood play a big role in explaining gaps between whites and blacks in income and wealth during adulthood, other things being equal. And neighborhoods may have even more long-lasting effects. Sharkey presents new evidence that living in a poor, segregated neighborhood undermines some outcomes not just for one generation, but across generations. For example, he shows that children whose families lived in poor neighborhoods for two generations score dramatically worse on reading and problem-solving tests than those whose parents grew up in non-poor neighborhoods, other things being equal. In fact, the parents’ neighborhood exposure may be more important than the child’s neighborhood exposure.

This new evidence suggests that conventional research methods actually understate the damage caused by neighborhood poverty and distress. And they also suggest that we may be too quick to declare policies that improve neighborhood conditions ineffective. If the neighborhood experiences of parents play a big role in shaping the child’s academic achievement, then improvements in the child’s neighborhood environment might not pay off right away in his or her test scores. It may not be until the next generation that we begin to see substantial gains. If we give up too soon, abandoning our efforts to improve the neighborhoods in which black children grow up, today’s daunting achievement gaps will persist for yet another generation.

Durable Urban Policies

By focusing on the persistence of inequality across generations and the long-lasting effects of neighborhood distress, Sharkey makes a compelling case that point-in-time interventions will inevitably fall short. What’s required is sustained interventions operating at multiple levels that recognize the reciprocal effects between people and the places where they live. He calls this “durable urban policy.”

One of the features I like most about Sharkey’s analysis is that it underscores the need for effective policy at multiple geographic scales—federal, state, local and neighborhood. Narrowing the racial equity gap requires a healthy national economy, shaped by federal policies that expand decent-paying jobs with adequate benefits, offer reasonable work supports for low-wage earners, and provide a compassionate safety-net for the most vulnerable. But even the best federal policy solutions would fall short without contributions at the state level, like Medicaid expansion and alternatives to mass incarceration. The economic vitality of individual metros plays an essential role as well, reinforced by city and regional policies that promote growth, expand opportunities, and ensure equal access. And finally, even in vibrant metros, racial disparities will persist without targeted investments in the most distressed neighborhoods and intensive supports for struggling families. (Two new books from Brookings on the metro- and neighborhood-level policy challenges are well worth reading: Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, by Berube and Kneebone and The Metropolitan Revolution by Katz and Bradley).

Too often, the policymakers, advocates, and practitioners who devote their energies to one or two of these policy domains forget their interdependence. And as a consequence, policy debates too often pit one essential element against another. In my view, Sharkey’s framing of “durable urban policy” should remind us how the success of policies and investments at every level depend upon what happens at other levels. And it puts another nail in the coffin of the tired debate about “people-based vs. place-based” policies. Sharkey makes it so abundantly clear that if we care about racial equity, we need a web of “place-conscious” policies that expand opportunities, ensure equal access, and provide supports for people and families.

Assisted Housing Mobility and Neighborhood Redevelopment

Sharkey gives special attention to the long-standing tension between assisted mobility interventions and neighborhood reinvestment strategies as tools for tackling the damaging concentration of poverty and social distress. I agree with his conclusion that we need both, that they can be mutually supportive, and that they must be pursued at a robust, “durable” level. Both of these approaches have proven ineffective when the help they deliver isn’t sustained for enough time or the investments they make are too shallow.

We’ve learned a lot in recent years about what works (and what doesn’t) to help poor minority families escape from severely distressed environments and move to opportunity-rich neighborhoods. Building on encouraging findings from the Gautreaux demonstration, HUD launched the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) demonstration to find out whether poor families would be better off if they could move away from distressed, high-poverty housing projects to live in low-poverty neighborhoods. Last year, HUD released findings from its evaluation of MTO, answering the question: Are families that received the demonstration’s experimental treatment (housing counseling and vouchers for rentals in low-poverty neighborhoods) better off than their counterparts in a control group? It turns out that, as a group, the MTO experimental families did enjoy significantly better health and mental health than the control group but not higher employment, incomes, or educational attainment.

Some scholars and policymakers have taken these findings to mean that where we live—and where our kids grow up—doesn’t really matter. In fact, the evidence from MTO is much more consistent with Sharkey’s diagnosis of neighborhoods’ long-term effects. First, the health gains enjoyed by MTO’s experimental families are hugely important. High rates of obesity, anxiety, and depression severely degrade a person’s quality of life, employability, and parenting abilities. Nobody should understate the value of a policy intervention that helps tackle these chronic health risks.

Second, one likely reason that MTO gains were limited to health outcomes is that the special mobility assistance provided by the demonstration didn’t enable the experimental families to sustain access to high-opportunity neighborhoods. Experimental families moved to better-quality housing and safer neighborhoods but few spent more than a year or two in low-poverty neighborhoods. My recent analysis of MTO data (Benefits of Living in High-Opportunity Neighborhoods) finds that families who lived for longer periods in neighborhoods with lower poverty did achieve better outcomes in work and school, as well as in health. Specifically, adults who spent more time living in lower-poverty neighborhoods were more likely to have jobs and earn more, other things being equal. And youth (both boys and girls) who spent more time in lower-poverty neighborhoods achieved higher English and math test scores.

This evidence suggests that assisted housing mobility strategies can play an essential role in a “durable urban policy” if they help families move to and stay in opportunity-rich neighborhoods. The latest generation of mobility programs reflect these lessons and include new elements like second-move counseling and hands-on help for families who need services and supports in their new neighborhoods. One of the things I admire most about advocates and practitioners working on these strategies is their openness to learning from research about what tools work—or don’t work—and their willingness to refine and strengthen their strategies to reflect emerging evidence.

Over the years, we’ve also gained a lot of knowledge and experience about the effectiveness of efforts to revitalize the severely distressed neighborhoods that residential segregation, discrimination, and redlining created. These efforts implicitly aim for neighborhoods to function as “incubators” for their low-income residents—so that gradual improvements in employment, income, and education will transform the neighborhood as a whole. A recent volume from the Aspen Institute’s Roundtable on Community Change (Voices from the Field III) acknowledges that although investments in neighborhoods targeted for this kind of revitalization have benefited individual residents who participated in new programs and helped build stronger community leadership and networks, few have produced the population-level transformation they sought.

One explanation for this disappointing outcome is that many of the forces that trap communities and families in distress are outside the control of neighborhood-level interventions—again highlighting the interdependence of policy at multiple scales. But consider an alternative vision of how neighborhoods should function for low-income residents: not as incubators but as launch pads. Like an incubator neighborhood, a launch pad would offer services and supports that poor people need to advance economically. But as families achieved greater economic security, they wouldn’t be expected to stay in the neighborhood. Instead, many would move to more desirable (and expensive) neighborhoods, to be replaced by other needy families. Even though the neighborhood as a whole wouldn’t show big gains in employment, income, or wealth, people would benefit from having lived there. Neighborhoods that have historically served as entry points for successive waves of immigrants perform in this way, and Sharkey’s analysis of neighborhoods that became less distressed (and less damaging) during the 1980s and 1990s confirms that immigrant neighborhoods may be good models of launch pads for low-income families of color.

In the years ahead, policymakers, practitioners, and researchers who care about racial equity should work together to advance the effectiveness of both mobility and reinvestment strategies. We need to keep experimenting, learning, and adapting to make both these approaches more effective and more durable even though, in the near-term, political and fiscal constraints will keep the scale of investment tragically small.


Berube, Alan and Elizabeth Kneebone. 2013. Confronting Suburban Poverty in America. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Katz, Bruce and Jennifer Bradley. 2013. The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Kubisch, Anne C., Patricia Auspos, Prudence Brown and Tom Dewar. 2010. Voices from the Field III: Lessons and Challenges from Two Decades of Community Change Efforts. Washington, DC: The Aspen Institute.

Massey, Douglas S. and Nancy Denton. 1993. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Turner, Margery Austin, Austin Nichols and Jennifer Comey. 2012. Benefits of Living in High-Opportunity Neighborhoods: Insights from the Moving to Opportunity Demonstration. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

Wilson, William Julius. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Margery Austin Turner , a member of PRRAC’s Social Science Advisory Board, is Senior Vice-President at The Urban Institute. Her research analyzes issues of residential location, racial and ethnic discrimination, and the role of federal housing policies in expanding opportunity and equity. She served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Research at HUD from 1993 through 1996, helping to launch three major social science demonstration projects assisting families from distressed inner-city neighborhoods gain access to opportunities through employment and education.

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