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Conventional wisdom says that place matters more for people who live in distressed neighborhoods—places with low median incomes and not a lot of opportunity. That’s why policymakers have traditionally focused on one of two place-based solutions. Community development grants and tax breaks, for example, are aimed at improving conditions by luring investment into disadvantaged areas. Housing voucher programs, meanwhile, are supposed to help low-income families escape distressed neighborhoods and move to ones with higher median incomes and better educational outcomes.
But what if our approach to geographical inequality is lopsided? What if we’re overlooking the contribution of so-called advantaged neighborhoods in maintaining status quo?
In a new paper published in Sociological Quarterly, Junia Howell, a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh and Kinder Institute scholar, argues just that. “As important as investigations into disadvantaged neighborhoods are,” she writes, “the nearly exclusive analytical focus on them has the unintentional consequence of downplaying the role that advantaged neighborhoods play in stratifying educational outcomes.”
In this paper, Howell tested what types of neighborhoods had the most influence on their residents by analyzing a trove of data going back a half-century from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID). Administered since 1968 to a representative sample of 5,000 households across the U.S., this is the world’s longest-running longitudinal household survey, and it allowed her to track children in the survey throughout their childhood and into adulthood. She had information on what they did for a living, how much they made, and what block they lived on for each year of the survey. Connecting that with census data allowed her to paint a picture of the neighborhoods they lived in.
As researchers have done in the past, she gave these neighborhoods scores based on proportion of residents below poverty line, proportion of black residents, and proportion of female-headed single-family households. The higher these proportions, the more “disadvantaged” the neighborhood.
That definition is “in itself problematic,” Howell said, because the lack of opportunity in these places is a symptom of historical treatment and structural problems. But she wanted to use it to be consistent with previous research. (She also looked at other measures of neighborhood disadvantage, like median income and educational attainment, and found similar results.)
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