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Economically diverse neighborhoods improve outcomes for black and Latino kids

Mar 16, 2017

Neighborhoods. It's a topic that has come up time and time again here at State of Opportunity. That's because where people live has a lot to do with who they become.

Although neighborhood factors like location, safety and condition bear a lot of influence, even more impact can be made by the diversity of the people living there.

And it turns out class desegregation may have more power than racial desegregation to improve the lives of black and Latino kids. That's according to recent research on a Denver public housing program that assigns low-income families to a variety of neighborhoods.

Study author George Galster is a professor of urban affairs at Wayne State University. He told CityLab:

Most jurisdictions put public housing in large-scale apartment buildings in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Denver has some of that, but it's more likely that families will be assigned to other areas, from wealthy suburbs to everything in between.

Black and Latino children have overall better outcomes when they live around neighbors with higher occupational statuses, according to a pair of studies conducted by Galster and his co-authors.

One study found black and Latino teens living in higher occupational status neighborhoods are less likely to drop out of school. The other study found that young adults living in these neighborhoods have a lower chance of receiving public assistance. Galster said:

That’s not to say that racial segregation isn’t important. The racial dynamic also works to create inferior environments. But concentrations of deprivation among any race is the major enemy.

This isn't the first time we've discussed the idea of moving poor families into wealthier neighborhoods. Last year, the Obama administration proposed changes to the Housing Choice Voucher Program that would have given bigger subsidies to voucher holders living in more expensive neighborhoods.

The proposal was met with opposition from landlords, low-income tenant advocates and left-leaning local officials because it also meant the government would start paying smaller subsidies in higher-poverty neighborhoods.

Galster told CityLab his studies should encourage examination of current housing policy. For instance, he said the Section 8 voucher program doesn’t give families enough incentive to move out of high-poverty areas away from their existing support systems:

People stay close to their original neighborhoods because of their social networks, which often provide childcare, or because they’ll need a car in another area, which they can’t afford. We can relieve those burdens by adding incentives like a used car or vouchers for professional child care.

Of course, it’s much more complicated than just moving poor people to wealthier neighborhoods. Even that comes with its own conflicts.

In 2013, Princeton University Press published "Climbing Mount Laurel: The Struggle for Affordable Housing and Social Mobility in an American Suburb." The book was the result of two years of research by the university, analyzing the development of the Ethel R. Lawrence Homes in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. It was the state's first affordable housing community in the suburbs to reach the very poor.

David Kirp is a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. In an op-ed piece for The New York Times, Kirp wrote of the book:

Suburbia beckons many poor and working-class families with the promise of better schools, access to non-dead-end jobs and sanctuary from the looming threat of urban violence. But many suburbanites balk at the prospect of affordable housing in their midst.

They fear that when poor people move next door crime, drugs, blight, bad public schools and higher taxes inevitably follow. They worry that the value of their homes will fall and the image of their town will suffer. It does not help that the poor are disproportionately black and Latino. The added racial element adds to the opposition that often emerges in response to initiatives designed to help poor families move to suburbs from inner cities.

Still, evidence shows that it’s time to rethink the makeup of the American city and give everyone a chance at upward mobility.