The 2008 presidential campaign, in its best moments, has restored to the political agenda the great question of American domestic policy: what can we do to address concentrated, multigenerational, inner-city poverty? Should we focus on improving neighborhoods? Should we provide support that helps families move to neighborhoods with better schools, less crime, and higher income? Or should we be worrying less about neighborhoods and more about families, less about place and more about people? The following articles explore these questions.
Most social scientists share the core belief that the environment—particularly the human constellations in which we find ourselves—shapes who we become, and by extension, our life chances. Indeed, American sociology started with the subject of neighborhoods. Studies by Robert E. Park, Ernest Burgess, and Louis Wirth—leading figures in the Chicago School of the early-20th century—all argued for the profound effect of neighborhoods on the opportunities, behaviors, and outlooks of their residents.
Migrating from sociology to policy, the idea that place matters animated the civil rights movement in its focus on housing desegregation, and was powerfully expressed in the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The strategy was to take poor (black) folks out of the ghetto. The same message extends through the scholarship of William Julius Wilson in the 1990s and the post–Hurricane Katrina debate about what to do with all those poor people who lost their homes. Barbara Bush may have been singularly crude when she observed that the dislocation was “working very well for them,” but she was not alone in treating Katrina as an opportunity to dismantle part of the New Orleans ghetto and disperse its refugees to low-poverty neighborhoods.
Stefanie DeLuca’s essay evaluates the merits of population dispersion by describing a series of policy experiments undertaken over the past 25 years. The 1980s Chicago-based Gautreaux mobility project showed promise, DeLuca tells us, because welfare families who were randomly assigned to the suburbs fared much better than those who stayed in the inner city. In the 1990s, Moving to Opportunity (MTO) sought to build on Gautreaux’s success, but it arrived at fairly disappointing results. There were some signs of improved mental health—less fear and anxiety—though analysts were uneasy about resting too much weight on potentially biased self-reported improvements. But there were no notable benefits among the outcomes that social scientists—particularly the hard-nosed economists—and policymakers cared about most: education, employment, and earnings.
One tempting conclusion from MTO is that the Chicago School and its descendants got the story wrong—that neighborhoods are, after all, nothing more than the sum of individuals who move in and out of them. Moreover, that that movement is not at all random: troubled neighborhoods are troubled because, as a rule, people who are on more successful tracks move out. In other words, you can take the kid out of the ghetto, but you can’t take the ghetto out of the kid. It is all about individuals, not their social environments.
Another interpretation is that we social scientists are just too impatient. Drawing on other recent sociological research, Patrick Sharkey underscores the powerfully intergenerational character of neighborhoods. Most poor families have spent one or more generations living in segregated poverty. Why, then, should we expect to see any positive effects on socialization or opportunity after a couple years of living in a new place, especially when the move itself initially can be quite disruptive?
But even if MTO had shown huge effects, the perennial policy question arises: what happens when you go to scale? After all, it’s one thing to slip a few poor families into the crevices of middle-class suburbs (and, in fact, being low-key to avoid a white-flight response was an explicit strategy of Gautreaux). It’s quite another thing altogether to remake the entire housing landscape of America. Patrick Sharkey reminds that in the end what we really need to be concerned about is not the existence of ghettos, but their impact on the lives of residents. And so, if we think that neighborhoods matter and that it is impractical to disperse the ghetto, perhaps we can make the ghetto a better place to live. In this vein, Sharkey proposes a strategy of gluing back together our politically fragmented metropolitan areas: if we can link the quality of life, educational opportunities, and public services of middle-class suburbanites back to their poorer urban compatriots, then we can generate support for the urban investment needed to improve inner-city neighborhoods.
And what if we stop thinking in terms of place and start thinking about families or individuals? If we had a more progressive tax and welfare policy, for example, there would simply be more money in the ghetto—with all the positive spillover effects on economic development that dollars bring. Maybe it’s time to stop obsessing about getting rid of the ghetto and start making it a better place through, for example, real enterprise zones that foster asset growth in poor communities, business by business, home by home, family by family, person by person. In this way we could punt on the whole neighborhood-effects debate. Maybe we would do best, after all, to think of a community as nothing more than an aggregation of individuals. That is, even if together they do, in fact, produce social effects that are sui generis, we can still make the whole better by fixing the parts.
Dalton Conley is a university professor and the chair of the sociology department at New York University.