Monday, October 28, 2013

The Great Divide: Race and Neighborhood Well Being

A piece looks at an issue that certainly is visible in the Hampton Roads area: poor neighborhoods sometimes mere blocks from affluent neighborhoods where the poor inhabitants are often condemned to never being able to escape early years disadvantages.  In Norfolk, the contrast between the wealthy Ghent neighborhood and Park Place (which is literally on the other side of the railroad tracks) is but one example.  The result of the disparity is that ultimately, we all suffer either directly or indirectly.  We all pay a price economically and in terms of costs of health care and city services.  The Republican Party response, of course, is to simply cut off all aid to the poor in the apparent hope that they will disappear.  While that approach may satisfy the greed and racism of the GOP base, it is not an ultimate solution.  A column in the New York Times looks at the lingering problem.   Here are some column excerpts:

We don’t talk much about “the wrong side of the tracks” in public anymore, but the distinction between one place and another is implicitly understood and often explicitly specified. That location matters greatly for housing values, for example, is taken for granted. Less appreciated is the persistence of neighborhood inequality and its extensive reach into multiple aspects of everyday life. An increasing separation at the top has intensified the effect of spatial divisions on everyone else.

[I]t is still common in American cities to find neighborhoods struggling with poverty rates well above the national average, sometimes just streets away from neighborhoods brimming with affluence. While racial segregation has modestly declined in recent decades, the latest data reveal that approximately 60 percent of blacks or whites in metropolitan areas across the United States would have to relocate to achieve racial integration. In New York City, an eye-popping 81 percent of whites or blacks would have to move.

Fifty years after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. pointed to African-Americans on a “lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” racial and economic disparities by place not only remain but are closely connected. Nationwide, close to a third of African-American children born between 1985 and 2000 were raised in high-poverty neighborhoods compared with just 1 percent of whites. Crucially, income does not erase place-based racial inequality — affluent blacks typically live in poorer neighborhoods than the average lower-income white resident.

The great neighborhood divide extends to many of the fundamentals of well-being. Violence, poor physical health, teenage pregnancy, obesity, fear and dropping out of school are all unequally distributed. Getting ahead economically is also shaped by where you live, even more than you might think.  . . . . the odds of a child raised in the bottom fifth of income rising to the top fifth as an adult — is lower for those who grew up in cities characterized by racially and economic segregated neighborhoods. 

What many have come to call “mass incarceration” has a local face as well — only a small proportion of communities have experienced America’s prisoner boom whereas others are relatively untouched. I was taken aback to learn that the highest incarceration rate among African-American communities in Chicago was over 40 times higher than the highest ranked white community.

The stigmatization and widespread social exclusion of poor neighborhoods is corrosive. Cynicism toward institutions is high despite the commitment of residents to conventional values. In Chicago, for example, lower income and minority residents are more likely to condemn smoking, drinking and fighting among teenagers than upper class or white residents. Yet concentrated poverty lowered perceived trust and social cohesion among fellow residents, reinforcing a negative feedback loop.

Less visible are the long-term consequences of growing up in concentrated poverty for human capital development. In Chicago we found that early exposure to severely disadvantaged communities was associated with diminished verbal skills later in childhood. We estimated that living in concentrated disadvantage depressed the rate of future verbal learning by about four I.Q. points, akin to missing a year of school.

Neighborhood disadvantage can extend across surprisingly long periods of time in the lives of children and families. My colleagues and I just completed a long-term follow-up of over 1,000 children from the study in Chicago that we began in 1995. We tracked a birth cohort, 9-, 12-, and 15-year-olds, no matter where they moved in the United States. Among the near-majority of black infants born in high poverty neighborhoods in 1995, more than half remained there in 2012; 13 percent had “moved up” to low poverty.  What about downward mobility? Over a third of black infants born in low poverty ended up in high poverty neighborhoods, compared with 2 percent of white children.

The phenomenon [gentrification] is real but the fact that it makes the news is precisely the point — “rags to riches” is no more common among neighborhoods than it is among people. For every poor neighborhood on the move, more struggle out of the media glare. And while large cities like Detroit have been much in the news for spectacular failure, smaller cities and towns like Flint, Mich., and Port Clinton, Ohio, contain some of America’s poorest and hardest-hit neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, many social policies tend to accentuate these trends rather than mitigate them. The persistent geography of inequality is reinforced by exclusionary zoning, persistent red lining, selective withdrawal of public services, the segregation of low-income public housing, “stop and frisk” policing concentrated in minority areas, school funding tied to property values and the political fragmentation of metropolitan areas. The city line is more than just geography, it typically means a sharp social boundary.

We live in a free society, of course, but the high-end spatial concentration of income and its associated resources, like well-endowed schools, security, abundant services and political connections, in effect pulls up the drawbridge from our neighbors. The hypersegregation of “the truly advantaged” speaks volumes about the continuing significance of place and raises important questions about what kind of society we want to be.

Yes, it is disturbing.  Even more disturbing is that the political party that claims to honor Christian values is the main opponent to efforts to change this bleak picture.   I continue to respect the Gospel message, but when I see what so many self-proclaimed Christians are doing, I really find it increasingly difficult to call myself a Christian.

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