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SSRC Notes: Overcoming the systemic challenges of growing up in a poor neighborhood: The role of place

Date Added to Library: 
Friday, June 15, 2018 - 16:28
Individual Author: 
Coffey, Amelia
Lantos, Hannah
Reference Type: 
Place Published: 
Washington, DC
Published Date: 
Published Date (Date): 
Friday, June 15, 2018

Posted by Amelia Coffey and Hannah Lantos, Self-Sufficiency Research Clearinghouse Staff

Between the 1990 census and the 2000 one, the percent of Americans who lived in census tracts with over 40 percent of residents living below the federal poverty level (FPL) dropped by over 25 percent. Between 2000 and 2010, those gains were entirely lost when the number of Americans living in one of these “extremely poor” census tracts increased by 50 percent.  This increase continued beyond 2010, with nearly 14 million people living in these extremely poor neighborhoods between 2010 and 2014. The increase in people living in extremely poor census tracts was more than three times greater than the rise in the overall national poverty rate over the same time period. This meant that more people overall as well as more of the poor were living with or near a higher concentration of people who were poor. Neighborhoods where 40 percent or more of residents are poor are categorized as “extremely poor,” while neighborhoods with 20 to 40 percent living below the FPL are categorized as “high poverty” neighborhoods. Concentrated poverty can negatively impact overall well-being. Being poor in a poor neighborhood is different from being poor in a wealthy neighborhood; for decades, research has linked living in an impoverished community with barriers to economic self-sufficiency, but has also identified the elements of interventions effective at increasing residents’ self-sufficiency.  

Recent research using data from the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program– a national study of families who were randomly selected to receive vouchers that allowed them to find housing outside their high-poverty neighborhoods – demonstrated that neighborhood effects on children are potent and durable, contributing to the perpetuation of poverty across generations. Childhood residence in less advantaged neighborhoods has been linked to negative outcomes in areas that are important building blocks for self-sufficiency, including academic achievement and cognitive skills. For example, one study found that attendance at the Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy charter schools—which provide high-quality programming, such as extended classroom hours and coordinated tutoring, that are not offered at other schools—improved student standardized test performance enough to close the racial achievement gap in English and math. Similarly, another study found that when providing low-income families a chance to live in more advantaged neighborhoods where their children can attend low-poverty public schools, these children were able to catch up to their more affluent peers in standardized test performance. Other research has found a relationship between neighborhood violence and school performance, as well as children’s cognitive processes.

Examination of additional mechanisms that may explain the negative effects of disadvantaged neighborhoods on residents is an important new research frontier. For example, social scientists have begun to explore characteristics of impoverished communities that affect academic achievement, thereby indirectly affecting self-sufficiency. One group of researchers looked at small-area geographic data in New York City, and found that community violence, comparatively prevalent in disadvantaged neighborhoods, contributes to children’s poor performance on standardized tests. 

Two primary strategies have been used to improve outcomes for residents of impoverished communities: place-based investment, and encouraging residential mobility. Place-based investment initiatives take many forms, but usually target multiple factors affecting resident well-being, including the local job market, the physical environment, and the availability of services. The Promise Neighborhoods Initiative was an example of a place-based strategy. Evidence of the effectiveness of place-based investment is inconsistent. Existing research generally indicates that the level of sustained investment needs to be high to produce meaningful impacts in the neighborhood. An effort that did see positive results was the Empowerment Zones program, which used place-based investment incentives in disadvantaged areas. An evaluation found that the program increased the number of jobs and businesses in targeted neighborhoods, while boosting residents’ wages. Looking ahead, the federal Choice Neighborhoods program and several other place-based interventions are currently being implemented with the benefit of lessons learned drawn from previous evaluations. These efforts will shed more light on the effectiveness of, and investments required for, this approach.

Residential mobility programs help members of disadvantaged communities move to areas with better conditions, typically by providing housing vouchers and counselling; Moving to Opportunity was one such program. Evidence of the effectiveness of these programs is also mixed. Previous studies of MTO (the voucher study mentioned above) found no significant outcomes related to self-sufficiency. However, more recent evidence indicates that children who were young at the time their families used a program voucher to move to a new neighborhood had considerably higher incomes in adulthood. Additionally, initial results suggested that young girls fared better than young boys. Findings from this and other studies suggest that keys to the effectiveness of this strategy include providing supports to ensure that families move to less disadvantaged neighborhoods, prioritizing families with young children, and supporting boys who may need more help adjusting to their new neighborhoods. 

Learn more about impoverished communities from the SSRC:

The SSRC Library contains numerous evaluation reports and stakeholder resources on impoverished communities, including:

  • U.S. concentrated poverty in the wake of the Great Recession: This report provides an overview of trends in geographic concentration of poverty across the United States, using the latest available data from the American Community Survey.    
  • Neighborhoods, cities, and economic mobility: This article summarizes existing evidence on how community and city characteristics can affect the economic mobility of residents. There is an overview of the effectiveness of past interventions. The author also discusses policy implications and areas for future research.
  • Tackling persistent poverty in distressed urban neighborhoods: This white paper summarizes the history of place-based strategies, and lessons learned from past efforts. The authors also offer principles for structuring future interventions. The paper emphasizes the need for poverty alleviation strategies that are both place-conscious and child-focused, and includes guidance for philanthropic involvement.
  • Severe deprivation in America: This book of essays explores how people in extreme poverty live in the United States.  Each chapter is available online from the Russell Sage Foundation, and highlights different components of surviving in poor neighborhoods and families.
  • How to evaluate choice and promise neighborhoods: Evaluations of interventions to address well-being of people living in extremely poor neighborhoods can be challenging. This research brief highlights key research questions and methodologies to consider when beginning to plan an evaluation of a neighborhood poverty reduction initiative.

For more resources, check out the SSRC Library and subscribe to SSRC or follow us on Twitter to receive updates about upcoming events, new library materials on self-sufficiency topics of interest to you and more.

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