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Persistent urban inequality

February 6, 2008

Race, segregation, and inequality — these are the major issues that metropolitan America needs to address, and hasn’t so far. But there is some good analytical work being done to allow us to better understand these processes — and therefore, possibly to alter the course we are on. 

I heard an excellent talk a week or so ago by Myron Orfield of the University of Minnesota and the Metropolitan Area Research Corporation (MARC). Orfield is a national expert on the governmental and social processes affecting poverty, segregation, and schooling in the major metropolitan areas of the United States.  At his talk at the University of Michigan he provided a series of map overlays for Minneapolis-St. Paul that demonstrated the coincidence of neighborhoods with high incidence of poverty, failing schools, high crime rates, and poor health performance.  And, importantly, he highlighted some of the political processes through which school and district boundaries have been drawn in Minneapolis-St. Paul communities that have the fairly direct effect of sharpening the segregation of individual schools.  

The same set of issues is addressed in this month’s issue of the Boston Review in a forum on “ending urban poverty.” Each of the contributions is very good, and especially interesting is an article by Patrick Sharkey with the title “The Inherited Ghetto.” Sharkey begins with a crucial and familiar point: that racial inequality has changed only very slightly since the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968.  The concentration of black poverty in central cities has not substantially improved over that period of time, and the inequalities associated with this segregation have continued.  And the association between neighborhood, degree of segregation, and income and quality of life is very strong: children born into a poor and segregated neighborhood are likely to live as adults — in a poor and segregated neighborhood. Sharkey documents this statement on the basis of his analysis of the data provided the University of Michigan Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the first major statistical study of several generations of families in terms of residence, income, occupation, health, and other important variables.  Using a computer simulation based on the two-generation data provided by the Panel Study, Sharkey indicates that it would take five generations for the descendants of a family from a poor, black neighborhood to have a normal expectation of living in a typical American neighborhood. (That’s one hundred years in round numbers.)  In other words: the progress towards racial equality in urban America is so slow as to be virtually undetectable. 

What are the reasons for this?  That is Sharkey’s main question.  One point that he makes is an important one for explaining the continuation of segregation in the forty years since the passage of the Fair Housing Act.  This is the fact that the policy choices that have been made by federal and local authorities concerning housing patterns have more or less deliberately favored segregation by race.  Beginning with the initial Fair Housing legislation — which was enacted without giving the Federal agencies the power of enforcement — both federal and state policies have reinforced segregation.  As Sharkey notes, federal housing programs have subsidized the growth of largely white suburbs, while redlining and other credit-related restrictions have impeded the ability of black families to follow into these new suburban communities.  The continuation of informal discrimination in the housing market (as evidenced by “testers” from fair housing agencies) further reinforces continuing segregation between inner-city black population and the suburban, mostly white population. Sharkey makes another very important point: the forms of disadvantage — economic, health, income, educational — that currently exist between black and white, poor and rich — are the result of at least fifty years of social accumulation.  So we should be resolute in designing policies that will move the dial in the right direction — and then stick with those policies for a couple of generations.  We should not expect that this accumulation of disadvantage will be reversed in a short time.

One other important part of Sharkey’s piece is his review of the results of several experiments in relocation: what happens when individual families are relocated into less segregated, less poor neighborhoods (the “Moving to Opportunity” program and the Gautreaux program in Chicago)?  Stefanie DeLuca picks this topic up in her equally interesting article in the same issue, “Neighborhood Matters.”This topic is one of the most important issues of social justice that we face, and this forum is a great contribution  to better thinking about the subject. 

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