Poor Neighborhoods Key in Income Difference, Study Finds

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 27, 2009

Researchers have found that being raised in poor neighborhoods plays a major role in explaining why African American children from middle-income families are far more likely than white children to slip down the income ladder as adults.

The Pew Charitable Trusts Economic Mobility Project caused a stir two years ago by reporting that nearly half of African American children born to middle-class parents in the 1950s and '60s had fallen to a lower economic status as adults, a rate of downward mobility far higher than that for whites.

This week, Pew will release findings of a study that helps explain that economic fragility, pointing to the fact that middle-class blacks are far more likely than whites to live in high-poverty neighborhoods, which has a negative effect on even the better-off children raised there. The impact of neighborhoods is greater than other factors in children's backgrounds, Pew concludes.

Even as African Americans have made gains in wealth and income, the report found, black children and white children are often raised in starkly different environments. Two out of three black children born from 1985 through 2000 were raised in neighborhoods with at least a 20 percent poverty rate, compared with just 6 percent of white children, a disparity virtually unchanged from three decades prior.

Even middle-class black children have been more likely to grow up in poor neighborhoods: Half of black children born between 1955 and 1970 in families with incomes of $62,000 or higher in today's dollars grew up in high-poverty neighborhoods. But virtually no white middle-income children grew up in poor areas.

Using a study that has tracked more than 5,000 families since 1968, the Pew research found that no other factor, including parents' education, employment or marital status, was as important as neighborhood poverty in explaining why black children were so much more likely than whites to lose income as adults.

"We've known that neighborhood matters . . . but this does it in a new and powerful way," said John E. Morton, who directs Pew's economic policy unit. "Neighborhoods become a significant drag not just on the poor, but on those who would otherwise be stable."

Patrick Sharkey, the New York University sociologist who wrote the report, said researchers still need to pinpoint which factors in neighborhoods matter most, such as schools, crime or peer groups. But overall, he said, the impact of the contrasting surroundings for black and white children was indisputable.

"What surprises me is how dramatic the racial differences are in terms of the environments in which children are raised," he said. "There's this perception that after the civil rights period, families have been more able to seek out any neighborhood they choose, and that . . . the racial gap in neighborhoods would whittle away over time, and that hasn't happened."

The Pew researchers argue that the report buttresses President Obama's agenda, which includes proposals for "promise neighborhoods" that would replicate the Harlem Children's Zone, where an intensive array of investments -- beginning with prenatal care -- is meant to transform an entire area. Such an approach, Pew says, holds more promise than dispersing poor families into middle-class neighborhoods by giving them housing vouchers, a strategy that has had mixed results and could be difficult to implement on a large scale.

Sharkey and Morton said policymakers can take heart in one finding: Black children in neighborhoods in which poverty fell by 10 percent had higher incomes as adults than those who grew up in areas where the poverty rate stayed the same. This is a sign, they said, that simply improving the overall economy and quality of a given neighborhood can have beneficial effects on those growing up in it.

The report does not address whether middle-income blacks should move to low-poverty areas for the sake of their children's future prospects. It is a thorny question -- many middle-income blacks have remained in high-poverty areas partly because of segregated housing patterns. And if they were to move elsewhere, the poverty rates in the areas left behind would rise.

Ideally, said several scholars who read the report, investments in struggling neighborhoods would improve them to the extent that the middle-income families would not feel the need to leave.

"These findings do suggest that those with the means or resources should try to escape these neighborhoods," said Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson. "But . . . the exodus of middle-class families from poor black neighborhoods increases the adverse effects of concentrated poverty."

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