The Chronicle Review

The Neighborhood Effect

25 years after William Julius Wilson changed urban sociology, scholars still debate his ideas. Is anyone else listening?

Kelvin Ma for The Chronicle Review

William Julius Wilson
November 05, 2012

Jacqueline lived in one of the most toxic environments in urban America. If you've seen The Wire, HBO's series about crime and punishment in Baltimore, you can picture daily life in her neighborhood on that city's West Side. Drug dealers. Junkies. Shootings. Her high-rise housing project felt like a concrete cell. Jacqueline, a single mother with a sick child, was desperate to escape.

Then she got a ticket out. In the mid-1990s, Jacqueline volunteered to participate in a far-reaching social experiment that would shed new light on urban poverty. The federal government gave her and many others housing vouchers to move out of ghettos—with a condition. Jacqueline (a pseudonym used by researchers to protect her privacy) had to use the voucher in an area where at least 90 percent of the residents lived above the federal poverty line.

It's unlikely that Jacqueline had heard of William Julius Wilson, but the experiment that would change her life traces its intellectual roots in part to the Harvard sociologist's 1987 book, The Truly Disadvantaged. Wilson upended urban research with his ideas about how cities had transformed in the post-civil-rights period. Writing to explain the rise of concentrated poverty in black inner-city neighborhoods after 1970, he focused on the loss of manufacturing jobs and the flight of black working- and middle-class families, which left ghettos with a greater proportion of poor people. And he examined the effects of extreme poverty and "social isolation" on their lives. The program that transplanted Jacqueline, Moving to Opportunity, was framed as a test of his arguments about "whether neighborhoods matter" in poor people's lives.

Twenty-five years after its publication, The Truly Disadvantaged is back in the spotlight, thanks to a flurry of high-profile publications and events that address its ideas.

Researchers who have followed families like Jacqueline's over 15 years are now reporting the long-term results of the mobility experiment. The mixed picture emerging from the project—"one of the nation's largest attempts to eradicate concentrated poverty," in the words of the Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson—is feeding a broader discussion about how to help the urban underclass.

Families that moved to safer and better-off areas "improved their health in ways that were quite profound," including reductions in obesity and diabetes, says Lawrence F. Katz, a Harvard economist who is principal investigator of the project's long-run study. They showed less depression, Katz says, and "very large increases in happiness." Yet the program failed to improve other key measures, like the earnings and employment rate of adults and the educational achievement of children.

At the same time, two sociologists influenced by Wilson are publishing important new books that mine extensive data to demonstrate the lasting impact of place on people's lives. The first, published in February by the University of Chicago Press, is Sampson's Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. Among his many findings, Sampson shows that exposure to severely disadvantaged areas hampers children's verbal skills, an effect that persists even if they move to better-off places. That handicap is "roughly equivalent to missing a year of schooling," according to research he conducted with Stephen Raudenbush and Patrick Sharkey.

The second book, Sharkey's Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress Toward Racial Equality, forthcoming in January from Chicago, explores how neighborhood inequality spans generations. Sharkey, an associate professor of sociology at New York University, writes that "over 70 percent of African-Americans who live in today's poorest, most racially segregated neighborhoods are from the same families that lived in the ghettos of the 1970s." In other words, "the American ghetto appears to be inherited"—a finding with implications for policy.

But as scholars break new ground, is anybody listening? Not since the early 1960s has poverty received so little attention, says Christopher Jencks, a Harvard professor of public policy. Among sociologists, he says, optimism that they will make a political impact has waned.

Even Wilson, perhaps the best-known scholar of urban ghettos, has seen his political influence decline. I caught up with the professor in Washington one recent morning before he gave a speech about The Truly Disadvantaged at a symposium held by a progressive think tank. Wilson is a youthful 76-year-old with a neat mustache, a trim build shaped by 10 hours a week of exercise, and a clinically precise speaking style honed over decades of talking to the press about combustible topics. Sitting in the lobby of a hotel not far from the Capitol, Wilson recalled how he once had a direct line to the president as Bill Clinton's informal adviser. Whenever he e-mailed policy advice, he says, Clinton would respond with a handwritten note within two weeks. On affirmative action, for example, Wilson recommended using the term "affirmative opportunity." The next thing he knew, Clinton was in the news discussing "affirmative opportunity."

"It turns out that in some neighborhoods, people believe it's kind of a no man's land. They don't trust their neighbors at all."

Wilson influenced the current president, too. Barack Obama has said that he "was inspired to apply to Harvard Law School because he heard a presentation by William Julius Wilson on the devastating effects of de-industrialization on poor urban blacks, and wanted to get himself into a position to do something about it," according to The New Republic. Wilson discussed issues of race and class with Obama and served as an adviser to his 2008 presidential campaign. Yet Wilson has had no direct contact with the president since he took office.

When I ask whether that bothers him, Wilson declines to discuss it. But another prominent sociologist, Douglas S. Massey, is blunt. "We feel kind of marginalized," says Massey, referring to scholars of social issues. The Princeton professor finds it ironic that "you elect the first black president, and he doesn't want to raise racial issues and downplays those issues."

Meanwhile, urban America faces what some scholars view as a frightening moment. Concentrated poverty, after declining in the 1990s, swung back upward in the 2000s. Almost nine million people live in "extreme poverty" neighborhoods, where "at least 40 percent of residents have incomes below the federal poverty threshold" of roughly $23,000 for a family of four, according to the journal Science. The housing crisis vacated neighborhoods. Joblessness persists.

Obama's $840-billion stimulus bill propped up cities with money for schools, cops, homelessness, and more, Sharkey notes. That cash is running out.

"There are urban neighborhoods all over the country," Sharkey says, "that are very close to falling apart."

On a recent Friday, leading social scientists gathered in a Harvard auditorium for a conference about The Truly Disadvantaged. The university billed it as a forum for the "latest thinking" on poverty. But at times it felt like a religious pilgrimage to Cambridge, as speaker after speaker opened with an homage to Wilson.

The most forceful testimony came from Jencks, a journalist-turned-academic who has written books about race, poverty, and education. The past half-century, he said, has seen two pivotal events in the study of the black family.

The first was the Moynihan Report and the "venomous" response it evoked. In his 1965 study, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," Daniel Patrick Moynihan shined a harsh light on the family lives of poor urban blacks. The liberal Moynihan, assistant secretary of labor in the Johnson administration, used the phrase "tangle of pathology" to describe problems like out-of-wedlock births and absent fathers.

But just before his study officially became public, "the most fearsome urban violence in U.S. history" erupted in the Watts area of Los Angeles, as the historian James T. Patterson writes in a book about the Moynihan Report, Freedom Is Not Enough. "Stung by Moynihan's grim portrait," Patterson writes, "angry African-American spokespeople charged that he had smeared black culture and 'blamed the victim.'"

The academic fallout was brutal, as Jencks reminded a room filled with students too young to remember. Most who study the family are left-of-center, he noted. When they saw that describing black family life "could get you branded as a racist," he said, "they ran for cover." Some studied other things or retreated into quantitative demography, "which nobody read." During the ensuing two decades, Jencks said, research on inner-city families yielded "quite a bit of heat and almost no light."

"The publication of The Truly Disadvantaged in 1987 really ended that dismal era, and that was a fabulous thing for scholarship and for life in the university as well," he said.

"It was sort of like the fall of the Berlin Wall two years later. It sent a message that the era of fear and silence and lies was over."

The Orbs of Autumn

Wilson was already well known by then, thanks to his controversial 1978 book, The Declining Significance of Race, which argued that economic class had grown more central than race in shaping the life chances of blacks. Wilson maintained that a chasm had opened in the post-civil-rights period, with middle-class African-Americans improving their position as the black urban poor fell increasingly behind.

The Truly Disadvantaged picked up the poverty thread of that story at a time when more-conservative analysts had filled the void left by liberals. Charles Murray's 1984 book, Losing Ground, in particular, influenced the Reagan administration with its argument that the social programs of Johnson's Great Society had worsened the lives of poor people. (When one Harvard speaker showed a slide of Murray's book, some people booed.)

The Truly Disadvantaged told a different tale. It explained the rise of "a new type of urban poverty," as Sharkey calls it. Wilson described how the erosion of manufacturing drove up joblessness. Cities transformed from "centers of goods processing to centers of information processing." Their growth industries required workers with more education. And the jobs that required less learning were sprouting up in suburbs and exurbs, according to one study cited by Wilson, "far removed from growing concentrations of poorly educated urban minorities."

Wilson also stressed a social shift: the desertion of inner-city neighborhoods by working- and middle-class black families. Their exodus weakened a "social buffer" that could "deflect the full impact" of economic hardship, he argued. It eroded local institutions like churches, schools, and stores. And it removed "mainstream role models" who could reinforce the value of education, work, and family.

The result "was a concentration of poverty in the urban ghetto that was associated with an array of social problems, including violence, homelessness, joblessness, rising rates of families headed by single women, and welfare receipt," as Sharkey summarizes it in his book. "Whereas the ghetto of the 1940s was a place where all classes of African-American families were forced to live, the ghetto of the 1980s was a place where the most impoverished African-Americans had been abandoned."

In its capacity to spawn multiple interpretations, Wilson's book was "like the Bible," writes the urban historian Thomas J. Sugrue. It resonated with "liberal advocates of equality and conservative critics of the black family." It influenced policies to deconcentrate poverty by tearing down projects and offering vouchers to escape ghettos.

Within the academy, it faced one of its first major engagements from Massey's 1993 book, American Apartheid, written with Nancy Denton. Massey, then a colleague of Wilson's at the University of Chicago, didn't disagree with much of what Wilson had said. But rather than implicitly assuming that segregation existed, as it seemed to him Wilson had done, Massey focused on segregation as the key force that left African-Americans particularly vulnerable to the erosion of manufacturing and the rise in poverty that Wilson had described. (Massey says that other groups, like Italian-Americans or Hispanics, are buffered from the effects of a rise in poverty because their members are more scattered around a metropolitan area.)

Another sociologist, Mary Pattillo, followed up on Wilson's work by taking a close look at middle-class blacks, a group whose departure from inner cities had made up a central story line of The Truly Disadvantaged. Pattillo found that this migration had been "greatly misunderstood." In Black Picket Fences, published in 1999, she showed that the black middle class remained "separate and unequal," often living in places "characterized by more poverty, higher crime, worse schools, and fewer services than white middle-class neighborhoods."

Urban historians, meanwhile, punctured the "golden ghetto" notion that had shaped Wilson, writes Sugrue. Wilson had "ignored the everyday class conflict in the segregated cities of the early and mid-twentieth centuries, and exaggerated the impact of civil rights on housing segregation, which remained the norm for poor and better-off blacks alike in the late twentieth century."

And on it went. Wilson had hoped to prod liberals back into inner-city research. He did. His slim volume became one of the most referenced books of the past 50 years, cited or discussed in more than 3,500 studies.

One of its strongest ripple effects was a revival in the study of neighborhoods. That long tradition of inquiry had grown moribund, Sampson says, with the advent of new survey research that led social science to increasingly focus on individuals.

Wilson argued that social isolation magnified the effects of living in concentrated poverty, as residents faced limited access to marriage-worthy mates, job information, good schools, and role models.

But how do you measure the effect of neighborhoods on people's lives?

Sampson's answer is Great American City, a book that Wilson calls "one of the most comprehensive and sophisticated empirical studies ever conducted by a social scientist."

Sampson, 56, grew up amid industrial decline in the upstate New York city of Utica. The experience, he later told the Harvard Gazette, left him fascinated with demographic change and crime. In 1990, Sampson joined Wilson and Massey at the University of Chicago, the heady epicenter of much urban research.

At the time, in the wake of the crack epidemic, city violence had soared. The Rodney King riots exploded. "Cities were thought to be dying," Sampson told the Gazette. "The government was really concerned with community decline: What can we do, and how can we study it?"

In 1994, Sampson became scientific director of a sweeping investigation that would last 15 years and establish the empirical backbone for Great American City. The study's title, "Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods," points to the core idea: To understand human development, you have to understand the contexts that affect it. Sampson argues that neighborhood environments—not just the characteristics of people living in them—influence phenomena like crime, health, and learning.

Sampson frames his opus as a counterpunch against intellectual trends. Great American City rejects "the increasing reductionist thrust of much of modern social science that starts and ends with individuals," he writes. If scientific advances made the 1990s the "decade of the brain," Sampson hopes to help shape the early 21st century as a new "era of context." And he also pushes back against the death-of-distance zeitgeist voiced by writers like Thomas L. Friedman, author of the best seller about globalization, The World Is Flat.

"In fact, the world is very clumpy," he says. "And it's very unequal."

To study that clumpiness, Sampson turned the city of Chicago into a lab for a new science of context: "ecometrics."

His research team followed more than 6,200 children and families wherever they moved in the United States over about seven years. The researchers interviewed community leaders. They fanned out across the city to survey almost 12,000 Chicago residents, an undertaking that ran into many roadblocks. Interviewers were robbed at gunpoint and sexually harassed; in one posh lakefront district, some had to bribe doormen for access to residents closed off in high rises.

Researchers also filmed Chicago block by block in what Sampson describes as a proto-Google Street View. Cruising in an SUV with tinted windows, at three to five miles an hour, his crew videotaped 23,816 street segments. They captured and logged both physical and social details: housing structures, garbage in the street, abandoned cars, broken windows, unsupervised kids, public drinking, prostitution, graffiti, drugs, arguments, police presence, even condoms on the street.

To examine altruism, Sampson fielded a "Lost Letter Experiment" in which researchers scattered stamped, addressed letters across neighborhoods and measured rates of return. To evaluate civic engagement, his team mined newspaper archives for events like protests or community breakfasts, amassing a database that spanned more than 30 years and 4,000 public gatherings.

Armed with his "arsenal of ginormous data sets"—to quote a review of Great American City by the sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh—Sampson took the social temperature of communities. One concept key to Sampson's thinking is "collective efficacy," a measure of how much people trust their neighbors and are willing to help them. "It turns out that in some neighborhoods, people believe it's kind of a no man's land," Sampson says. "They don't trust their neighbors at all."

"The Latino population is headed straight to the underclass in a very real and powerful way,"

In explaining a neighborhood's level of criminal violence, Sampson has argued, collective efficacy is as important as—or even more important than—other characteristics, like poverty or physical disorder.

"That finding challenged nearly three decades of conventional wisdom that tied poverty and physical disorder to heightened crime," writes Venkatesh, an expert on gang life. "No longer could we simply clean up the streets to get rid of the criminal element. We needed to promote, well, neighborliness."

Sampson also contradicts the stereotype that a concentration of immigrants drives up crime. In reality, immigrants appear to be "less violent than people born in America, particularly when they live in neighborhoods with high numbers of other immigrants," he has written. Immigrants born outside the United States were 45 percent less likely to commit violence than third-generation Americans, while second-generation immigrants were 22 percent less likely.

"Recent research now is showing that increases in immigration at the neighborhood level lead to decreases in crime," Sampson tells me.

That's notable because the United States experienced a 50-percent increase in immigration from 1990 to 2000, a rate that, according to Sampson, had not been seen since the early 1900s. Mexicans flooded enclaves in big cities. The fate of America's often-undocumented Hispanic population is a hot topic this year as sociologists reflect on urban changes since The Truly Disadvantaged. At the Harvard conference, Massey argued that Latinos are at a "hinge point." Over the past 20 years they have fallen on almost every measure of social and economic well-being. Absent immigration reform, "the Latino population is headed straight to the underclass in a very real and powerful way," Massey warned. Their situation, he said, "scares the living daylights out of me."

Pulling back to the big picture, Sampson's story is about the durability of inequality. Over the past 50 years, cities have experienced riots, crime spikes, deindustrialization, middle-class flight, immigration, economic boom, the great crime decline, the recent recession.

"Through all that, it's really quite remarkable how neighborhoods really, for the most part, retain their spot in the pecking order of the city," Sampson says. "In other words, poor neighborhoods at one point in time are very likely to be poor neighborhoods at another point in time."

And segregation persists. Chicago, the country's third-largest city, experienced significant shifts in the racial makeup of its neighborhoods between 1960 and 2000. But "not one neighborhood," writes Sampson, "transitioned from predominantly black to predominantly white."

Poor blacks are much more likely to live in a poor area than equivalently poor whites, he adds. Thirty percent of black children in Chicago live in the bottom 25 percent of severely disadvantaged neighborhoods. The percentage of whites who live in them? Zero.

But the question of neighborhood effects remains "hotly debated," as Sugrue puts it. One recent flash point is the Moving to Opportunity experiment. That debate points to one of the toughest questions: What should the government do about poverty?

One knock on neighborhood-effects research is that it fails to account for a problem that scholars call "self-selection bias"—the effect of similar people clustering together.

Effects attributed to poor neighborhoods may instead be the result of the kinds of people in those places, as Wilson summarizes the criticism. Individuals with little concern for their children, weak skills, and other problems may be more likely to live in such neighborhoods.

Moving to Opportunity is important in part because it was designed to deal with that issue.

The program included more than 4,600 mostly black and Latino single mothers, all from high-poverty areas. Each was assigned to one of three groups. An "experimental" group got vouchers that could be used only in low-poverty areas. The second group got unrestricted vouchers. The third group got no vouchers.

By comparing randomly chosen groups with the same backgrounds, Wilson says, the studies "effectively removed individual self-selection as an explanation of the findings."

So what happened?

For Jacqueline, the program was a godsend. She moved to a mixed-race, mixed-income residential area in northeast Baltimore, says Stefanie DeLuca, a sociologist at the Johns Hopkins University who interviewed her for a follow-up study in 2003. Jacqueline, a college dropout who worked as a crossing guard, now rented a single-family home surrounded by yards and in a safe area. To her surprise—she hadn't anticipated this aspect of her new neighborhood—the move enabled her daughter to attend one of the city's best schools. The child's asthma also improved.

Looking back, Jacqueline told DeLuca that her daughter "would be lost" without the program.

"What do you mean?" DeLuca asked, according to a transcript.

"With children with special needs, it's very important to live in an area where you have access to those particular things," Jacqueline said. "If I hadn't been in the program, I don't think she would have gotten that. And it makes me feel good that I can come home from work and come in a nice neighborhood and not see drug addicts on the corner, and hollering and screaming and cursing and all that. You know, bring my child up in a decent neighborhood."

Yet despite Jacqueline's positive experience, key findings disappointed social scientists, "who had hoped that the experiment would lead to new ways of combating poverty," according to The New York Times. The program "was designed to get people out of poor neighborhoods and to improve their job opportunities," Jencks tells me, but it did not raise either employment rates or educational attainment. The mixed results, notes Wilson, have driven some "to question whether there really are enduring negative effects of living in poor, segregated neighborhoods."

Researchers have published a stack of papers debating why the program didn't do more and how good a test of neighborhood effects it really was.

The bottom line, for Katz, is that "neighborhoods profoundly matter." The Harvard economist, principal investigator of the program's long-term study, says "the difference between living in a very poor neighborhood and a moderately middle-class neighborhood is as large as doubling your income in terms of happiness and well-being."

Yet moving out "doesn't solve the problem that there's low demand for people who don't have a college degree," Katz says. "Just because you live in a better neighborhood that's safer doesn't mean you're that much more attractive to employers."

But Sharkey points out that many people in the experiment migrated back to poorer neighborhoods, so the program moved people into "lower-poverty neighborhoods for short periods of time." That is a "blip" for people whose families have lived in poverty for generations, he says.

And it points to a bigger problem. Money for disadvantaged areas has "fluctuated wildly," Sharkey says. Programs have attracted interest and been abandoned. What poor areas need, he argues, is something they have never had: a consistent investment policy that touches multiple generations.

Some Obama-administration efforts fit that criterion, he says. One, Promise Neighborhoods, is designed to replicate New York City's Harlem Children's Zone, with its emphasis on "cradle-to-college" programs for kids and parents.

Yet Promise Neighborhoods has proceeded "on a scale that cannot possibly generate transformative impact," Sharkey says. Sampson calls the program a hopeful sign, but one whose budget—$60-million in 2012—is "shockingly low." The president, Sampson notes, once spoke of spending billions on the antipoverty effort.

Obama's record on poverty has drawn criticism from some academics. Cornel West, a professor in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton, argues that the president has "failed poor people."

Wilson disagrees. "Obama has done more to address problems of lower-income Americans than any president since Lyndon Baines Johnson," he says.

Health-care reform is "a major antipoverty program." Steps to extend unemployment insurance and reduce payroll taxes have also helped. The stimulus, Wilson says, included $80-billion for poor people.

"When people say Obama hasn't done anything for the poor—people like Cornel West and others—they don't know what the hell they're talking about," Wilson says. "The problem is, he hasn't really talked about it publicly."

And on this issue—how to talk about it publicly—Wilson has had a change of heart since The Truly Disadvantaged. Then, he emphasized the need to highlight universal programs, an agenda that would attract political support by appearing "colorblind."

Today, recent research has convinced Wilson that Americans support a level playing field. In speaking about public policy, people should frame programs as vehicles for the poor to help themselves, he now believes. They should spell out problems. And they should not shy away from talking about race.

But for progress to happen, there must be a political will, Wilson says.

"If you don't recognize that a problem exists," he says, "you're not going to do anything."

Marc Parry is a staff reporter at The Chronicle.