America can use other countries to gain a better understanding of neighborhood inequality


One researcher offers new insights into opportunity, comparing Germany and the United States.

Neighborhood street at night

One researcher offers new insights into opportunity, comparing Germany and the United States.

Growing up in a lower class predominately Black neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio, I witnessed the compounding disadvantages that constrained opportunities and perpetuated cyclical poverty. Yet, I also saw the ebbs and flows of well-intended government policies like decentralizing public housing through section eight vouchers and community initiatives like local land trusts which habitually failed to deliver their promised relief. I began to wonder how other countries deal with similar problems and what their approaches might illuminate about U.S. urban policy.

I decided to pursue a Ph.D. to further investigate this question. I was looking for a place that would enable me to do cross-national urban comparative research. At the time, the Kinder Institute was in its early stages but was dedicated to supporting such research. Michael Emerson, co-founding director of the Kinder Institute, convinced me to come to Rice University to be a part of the institute and the inaugural class of sociology Ph.D. students.

Being at Rice and a part of the Kinder Institute allowed me to investigate how urban policies differ around the world and what that teaches us about U.S. urban poverty. Specifically, while at Rice, I spent time in Berlin, Germany examining how their policies shaped neighborhoods and how these, in turn, influenced children’s long-term wellbeing.

In the academic literature, we call this type of investigation, “neighborhood effects” studies, essentially the study of how where you grow up impacts where you end up economically. Hundreds of studies have investigated this question across U.S. cities. More recently, scholars have begun to conduct similar studies around the world. Yet, no one had conducted an empirical cross-national study that examined how the United States differed from other countries. I decided to do just that.

After months of negotiating, I was allowed to combine the restricted versions of the longest running longitudinal panel study in the United States to the longest running longitudinal panel study in Germany. I then combined this data on individuals to over 100 data sources on local neighborhood conditions and city policies. With this massive data set, I was able to compare how growing up in similarly marginalized families in comparable socioeconomic neighborhoods influenced children’s incomes as adults.

Contrary to our common narrative, I found Germany is more of a “land of opportunity” than the United States. U.S. children see limited mobility especially when they grow up in certain neighborhoods. The reasons for these differences trace all the way back to the creation of U.S. neighborhoods. During the 1910s and 1920s, U.S. urban scholars and planners decided to foster community and diminish urban vice by cultivating distinct neighborhoods each with their own school, post office, library, park and other amenities. However, these communities were not given equal resources creating cities with high levels of inequality—especially along racial lines. Germany, on the other hand, distributes amenities and government services centrally reducing inequities.

To be sure, neighborhoods do matter in Germany. In both countries the socioeconomic status of one’s neighborhoods has similar influences on children’s economic mobility. I examined the similarities and differences between the two nations in the recently released study, “Neighbourhood Effects in Cross-Atlantic Perspective: A Longitudinal Analysis of Impacts on Intergenerational Mobility in the United States and Germany” published in Urban Studies.

Nuances aside, the takeaway remains: the distribution of resources influences children’s socioeconomic opportunities. Instead of just trying to move residents out of marginalized neighborhoods or encourage them to create collective action initiatives, we need to rethink the very role neighborhoods play in residents’ lives.

Neighborhoods have become such a central feature of U.S. urban life it is hard to even imagine what moving away from a neighborhood paradigm looks like. Rethinking neighborhoods requires us to shift away from concentrating on what “marginalizing” neighborhoods are lacking and recognize how historical and contemporary government investment perpetuates inequity. We must consider how our educational, transportation, and infrastructure investments can be distributed equally across entire cities.

Truly moving away from a neighborhood paradigm will require reckoning with the limitations of government funding and likely result in privileged places seeing budget cuts. Likewise, this shift requires decoupling the cost of property from its location which will enhance equity but decrease the wealth of the most privileged residents. Creating cities that foster equal opportunities for all residents will come at a cost but the potential benefits are endless.

Junia Howell is an assistant sociology professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a Kinder Scholar with the Kinder Institute.

Junia Howell


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