Americans, by and large, live next door to people of the same race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Residential segregation by race remains high despite declines over the past several decades, and segregation by income is on the rise. Segregation by race or ethnicity and by socioeconomic status are often intertwined—for example, one study estimated that black youth are 10 times more likely to live in a poor neighborhood than their white peers.
Multiple factors created the residential segregation we experience today, including past federal, state, and local housing policies that were explicitly discriminatory to people of color and discouraged investment in the neighborhoods where they lived. These policies, along with current policies and practices that benefit people who are white or have higher household incomes, have led to many children of color, and children in low-income families, living in neighborhoods where disadvantage is concentrated. These neighborhoods are marked by a lack of resources and opportunity, which can affect their youngest residents in many ways—here are five key ones:
1. Segregated, low-income neighborhoods are associated with poorer-quality schools.
For the most part, schools reflect the demographic makeup of their surrounding neighborhoods. This means that, starting as early as preschool, children are likely to attend school with other children of the same socioeconomic status, and often of the same racial and ethnic group, particularly in urban areas. School segregation by income has increased in recent years. At the same time, schools are more racially and ethnically diverse (because the United States as a whole is now more diverse)—though school segregation by race and ethnicity remains high.
Schools with a high percentage of low-income students and/or students of color for the most part have fewer resources, spend less on staffing, lack adequate instructional materials, and have worse physical building conditions than their counterpart schools serving higher-income or more racially and ethnically diverse (or more uniformly white) student bodies. These conditions may eventually translate into lower educational attainment for the residents of a neighborhood as a whole.
2. Low-income and minority neighborhoods suffer from concentrated environmental hazards, including lead.
Neighborhoods whose residents are predominately poor or from a minority racial or ethnic group are more likely to have environmental conditions that pose a risk to children’s health. These include risks outside the home, such as poor air quality from nearby industrial sources or proximity to highways. And they include hazards associated with older and deteriorating housing, such as mold, pest infestations, peeling lead paint, and lead pipes.
All of these environmental hazards pose a serious risk to children’s development and well-being. Lead, for example, can cause neurological damage and impair children’s memory and other executive functioning skills such as planning, attention, and managing multiple tasks simultaneously. These deficits are linked to behavioral problems and poor academic performance, among other issues, that can affect a child’s entire life trajectory.
3. Low-income neighborhoods are less likely to have safe outdoor spaces for children to play.
Access to outdoor play is associated with a host of positive outcomes for children—from improved executive functioning skills to physical fitness. Yet children who live in neighborhoods with high rates of poverty are less likely to have access to safe places to play outside, such as parks, sports fields, and biking or walking trails. Worse yet, these same children’s indoor play spaces may contain environmental hazards that pose health threats as well, as noted above.
4. Children in low-income and minority neighborhoods are more likely to be exposed to some adverse childhood experiences, such as witnessing violence, which are linked with poor adult outcomes.
Experiencing violence, the death of a parent, or having a parent who is incarcerated are examples of events often referred to as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)—traumatic events that can trigger a powerful stress reaction in children. When children are exposed to ACEs, they can be at risk for a host of negative physical and mental health outcomes later in life. Witnessing or being the victim of violence in one’s neighborhood is an adverse experience that children in neighborhoods with concentrated disadvantage are more likely to experience. Though violent crime has declined in the United States over the past 20 years—a decline more pronounced in disadvantaged neighborhoods—rates continue to be higher in disadvantaged, segregated communities. Black families, regardless of income, are more likely to live in poorer neighborhoods than their white counterparts, meaning that black children are more likely to be exposed to the stressors of poverty.
5. Children in racially and economically segregated neighborhoods in cities are less likely to move out of poverty (i.e., they have reduced economic mobility).
For all the reasons discussed above, it is perhaps not surprising that areas that have greater intergenerational economic mobility—that is, where children grow up to have higher incomes than their parents—have less residential segregation by race and income (among other characteristics). One analysis estimated that poor families living in areas with low economic mobility will take four generations to reach the area’s average income level, while poor families in areas with high economic mobility will reach that average in three generations.
Parents with higher incomes who are living in areas where neighborhoods are highly segregated have the financial ability to choose to live in those neighborhoods with higher-quality schools, more public resources, lower crime, and other characteristics that support the healthy development of their children. If they own a home, they are also able to pass on that valuable asset to their children, whereas historically discriminatory housing policies may have locked black parents, in particular, into a rental market or a market in which housing is worth less. Higher-income parents are able to give their children those opportunities and assets that parents in disadvantaged neighborhoods are unlikely to be able to provide. This perpetuates inequality—and segregation—over generations.