Financial Sustainability Affected By Your Neighborhood?

According to the latest Pew Charitable Trust study, the sustainability of middle class African-Americans is profoundly influenced by the neighborhoods in which they choose to live. The study found that those living in good communities were far less likely to slide into a poorer socioeconomic status. New York University sociologist Patrick Sharkey, author of the study, explains the correlation.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from the perspective of the men and women fighting them and the families back home, new fiction, poetry and memoir from "Operation Homecoming." We'll tell you more about it in just a few minutes.

But first, a follow-up to a story we reported last year about economic mobility and the black community. This recession has been particularly difficult for African-Americans, and on this program we've talked about research that suggests that the black community has lost a generation's worth of economic progress in recent years.

Now, a new report suggests that the most important factor in the economic slide of middle-class families is not what you might think. It's not parental education, it's not marital status, it's their neighborhoods, so says a study published this week by the Pew Charitable Trust.

To talk more about the study, we're joined by New York University sociologist Patrick Sharkey. He's the author the study. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. PATRICK SHARKEY (Sociologist, New York University): Sure, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So how exactly does this work, and I get the impression that you're as surprised by these findings as many of us are.

Mr. SHARKEY: Well, I'm surprised at the degree of racial inequality in neighborhood environments that continues to exist now, you know, several decades after the civil-rights period. Blacks and whites continue to be raised that are really entirely different.

MARTIN: Well, give an example of how different.

Mr. SHARKEY: Well, even if black and white families have similar economic status, that is they have similar income, black families live in neighborhoods with much higher poverty rates, with higher crime rates, which lower-quality schools, with high rates of racial segregation and so forth.

So even among middle- and upper-income blacks and whites, we're talking about entirely distinct environments, and from this report, it looks like these environments really play a large role in contributing to racial inequality more broadly.

MARTIN: So I guess, what - is the issue here the neighborhood that the children grew up in, and it has some lasting impact on them when they become adults; or is it that even if you've got a family - let's say you have two parents, a two-parent family, and they have the same income as a white family across town, that the environment that that family is in is likely to be very different?

Mr. SHARKEY: That's right. I am looking at children's environments. I'm looking at the environments that they live across childhood, and you're exactly right. So this is a point that a prominent sociologist, Mary Patilo, has made over and over. Middle-class status means something very different for blacks and whites in America.

So for African-Americans, middle-class status does not necessarily mean that the family can kind of buy an advantaged environment - and by an advantaged environment, I mean an environment that offers quality learning opportunities, that offers amenities like parks and resources for families, and that offers safe and healthy environments for children.

These are not the types of environments that African-American families are raising their children in, and the kind of surprising piece is that this continues to be the case today, you know, several decades after major advances in civil rights were made.

MARTIN: How might this play out? I mean, the schools is an obvious one.

Mr. SHARKEY: Right. The schools is an obvious one. The prevalence of violence in communities is another major factor. African-Americans live in neighborhoods where - in some cases where homicides are common, where violence is common, and this is a major disruption to learning. This is a major disruption to everyday community life.

So again, these are just examples of the way that a whole host of disadvantages come bundled up in the neighborhood environment. And all of these disadvantages, including limited economic opportunities, poor schooling environments and so forth, all of these factors seem to be playing a major role in limiting the mobility prospects for African-American children.

MARTIN: I think the question some might have is, well, if you've got African-Americans with the same income as white families across town, why don't they move across town?

Mr. SHARKEY: Well, freedom of mobility, of residential mobility, has always been constrained for African-Americans. In the past, it was through blatant practices like the red-lining of neighborhoods, restrictive covenants which actually prohibited whites from selling homes to African-American families. Now it's a little bit more subtle. These things are no longer legal, but now there's discriminatory practices in the lending and the housing markets that continue. We have excellent evidence showing that this is still the case. Now it's through measures such as exclusionary zoning.

And these types of factors have continued to constrain the residential mobility options for African-Americans so that even if they make - an African-American family makes advances in economic status, it's still difficult to translate these economic advances into an advantage residential environment.

MARTIN: So what does this suggest from a policy standpoint? And I'm not sure if you're comfortable with that as an analyst. But to the degree that you are, what does this suggest? Does it suggest that the area to attack is discrimination in housing? Is it to suggest that sort of equalizing the school experience? What do you think this report suggests?

Prof. SHARKEY: Mm-hmm. Well, so, we certainly need to further reduce the degree of discrimination out there and make sure that every family has the option to live wherever they can afford. But it also suggests a different set of possible policies. So a second analysis in this report showed that if African-American children, if their neighborhood - if the degree of neighborhood poverty declines over childhood, then children do much better as adults. And this is looking at matched children who begin in exactly the same environment, but whose neighborhoods change in different ways over time.

And so if concentrated poverty declines, African-American children do much better as adults. So this kind of suggests that if we make sustained investments in neighborhoods, the prospects for mobility increase rapidly. And the Obama administration has started to pursue these types of interventions with the Promise Neighborhoods proposal that Obama has put forth, through Choice Neighborhoods and other similar policies. Really, it's an effort to make investments in places that will make these places less pernicious. It will make these places positive environments for children.

MARTIN: Okay. We, obviously, a lot more to talk about. Patrick Sharkey is a sociology professor at New York University. He's author of "Neighborhoods and the Black-White Mobility Gap." And he was kind enough to join us from our New York bureau. Professor Sharkey, thank you so much.

Prof. SHARKEY: Thank You.

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