The Dream Revisited

Move Up or Out? Confronting Compounded Deprivation

by Robert J. Sampson | July 2015

The sharp neighborhood divide in American society has been under an intense spotlight lately, prominent in stories of the police use of deadly force and high rates of incarceration in black communities, the loss of middle-class neighborhoods while poor and “one-percent” neighborhoods increase, and the fact that upward economic mobility depends in no small part on where one grows up. Many pundits have professed surprise at the magnitude of spatial inequality in our nation’s cities.

But we should not be surprised or feign surprise. Spatial inequality has a long history in America, and a rich vein of research foretold the current state of affairs.[1]  We know, for example, that poor neighborhoods have long been disproportionately subjected to institutional disinvestment, violence, joblessness, criminal justice sanctions, poor health, underperforming schools, and other forms of disadvantage—what we have conceptualized as “compounded deprivation.”[2] Not only is inequality spatially organized and compounded, but there is mounting evidence that prolonged exposure to concentrated disadvantage undermines early child development, which in turn predicts later critical outcomes like the formation of human capital skills, involvement in crime, and general health and well-being.

Much attention was drawn recently to a major study showing that neighborhoods also serve as an important platform for long-term economic mobility.[3]  It is unnerving—but again should not be surprising—to learn from this evidence that Baltimore, the site of considerable unrest after the death of Freddie Gray, scores at the bottom of all U.S. cities in its rate of upward economic mobility. Concentrated poverty, income segregation, violence, poor schools, and low social capital all appear to play a role in explaining why neighborhoods matter for getting ahead in life.

It follows, then, that just as schools cannot be fairly saddled with the responsibility of solving all family and neighborhood ills, criminal justice reform alone will not end the problem of compounded deprivation. Even if the prison doors were to swing open tomorrow, the multidimensional and persistent poverty in places like West Baltimore would await those coming home.  Meanwhile, too, the long-term effects of concentrated disadvantage on today’s young children have yet to manifest themselves.  

What to Do?

The enduring neighborhood effect implies that we need to consider policies that confront the spatial foundations of compounded deprivation. One way to think about potential policy responses is to separate them by units of intervention—individuals or communities. Put in terms commonly used, should ameliorative policies target people or place?

The people-based approach to reducing spatial inequality focuses on individual residential mobility—attempting to move individuals out of poor communities and into middle-class or even rich areas. One strategy is giving housing vouchers to induce residents to move away from areas of concentrated poverty, as occurred in the famous Moving to Opportunity (MTO) experiment.[4] The front-page print headline in the New York Times reporting new results on the MTO and another study on moving neighborhoods laid bare the policy takeaway: “Change of Address Offers a Pathway out of Poverty.” A new voucher program in Dallas is even more coercive: “To sharpen the prod, the government has also cut subsidies for those who do not go.” Let us call this the “move out” approach. 

By contrast, the place-based tactic is to intervene holistically at the scale of poor neighborhoods or communities themselves. Instead of moving poor people from their homes, the goal is to renew the existing but disinvested and often troubled neighborhoods in which they live with an infusion of resources. In theory at least, people can stay in place at the community level but still “move up.” 

Person-based versus place-based interventions have been the subject of much debate that goes well beyond the scope of this short essay, but a concise summary is that there is no “magic bullet” intervention at either level. Voucher programs like MTO have shown some positive effects, but the evidence is still uncertain overall; meanwhile, although neighborhood income-mixing has surfaced as a favored policy tool and is the subject of growing scholarly discussion, research is sparse and has produced conflicting results. It is also not clear that “scaling up” voucher programs to the national level is feasible—can we afford to move tens of millions of residents?   There are also worries that concentrated poverty would simply be shifted to other locations if mobility programs crossed a threshold of program participation. 

And there is a deeper issue that deserves reflection. Taking a cue from Mary Pattillo’s provocative and insightful contribution, I would like to consider the notion that living amongst the poor is not by itself the problem. Put another way: are rich neighbors really necessary as role models?  When poor individuals are asked about problems in their communities or why they want to move, the answers turn on issues like violence, drugs, gangs, and poor performing schools. This is an important finding, for what it suggests is that what many poor residents want is not to live near the rich but rather to have the community resources of the better-off. This is not surprising, because like many Americans, the poor value the family ties, friendships, churches, and traditions that are tied to their communities.[5] We can extend this idea in a thought experiment: suppose a poor community had safe streets, well-funded schools, and decent housing. Would we still insist that residents move out? Would the residents want to move? These questions become more salient when we consider the literature on the disruption caused by forced residential mobility and community destruction. 

Although community-level or place-based interventions have a mixed record of success, the data on persistent inequality therefore points to the need for new thinking on sustained interventions at the neighborhood level. It is surprising how few neighborhood policies take the long view; most interventions are single-site or time-constrained, with outcomes measured locally and in the short run. As Patrick Sharkey has argued, we need durable investments in disadvantaged urban neighborhoods to match the persistent and longstanding nature of institutional disinvestment that such neighborhoods have endured over many years. 

There exist several strategies to improve communities that are logical candidates for retooling with an emphasis on sustained investment. Candidates include: violence reduction, integrated with community policing and prisoner reentry programs that foster the legitimacy of criminal justice institutions; integrated community-based social services that recognize the multidimensional nature of poverty; code enforcement and crackdown on landlord disrepair and illegal eviction practices; enhanced protections against housing discrimination; and educational reform and support for healthy child development in high-risk, poor communities. Hybrid interventions that seek to create a more equitable mix of incomes, such as the HOPE VI mixed-income intervention, also make logical sense. 

The accumulated evidence tells us that what is needed are not just local policies targeted at specific communities, but rather a large-scale set of interventions, sustained over time and targeted to many, or ideally all, disadvantaged communities. A long-term focus is also consistent with the emerging body of research noted above, which demonstrates the critical importance of early childhood development for later wellbeing and economic mobility. National interventions by the federal government in many cities, such as Choice Neighborhoods and Promise Neighborhoods, are to date relatively small-scale and unevaluated, but they may prove useful in informing the next generation of place-based interventions.

People and Place

A different policy option is to give cash assistance or reduce the tax rate for those in compounded deprivation—that is, poor residents who also live in poor or historically disinvested areas.  Cash assistance or tax relief could also be combined with jobs training or public works job creation.  The logic behind this idea is that poor individuals who have lived for an extended period in poor neighborhoods have accumulated a set of disadvantages very different than poor individuals who have otherwise been surrounded by the resources of better-off neighborhoods. 

Racial inequality cannot be set aside in this discussion. African-Americans, more than whites or Latinos, have historically borne the brunt of differential exposure to compounded deprivation, and the data show that this continues to the present day. Our recent longitudinal study in Chicago found that 16 percent of black young adults were living below the poverty line and in a neighborhood with more than 30 percent poverty, compared to virtually no whites and less than 2 percent of Latinos (note 2). The prevalence of compounded poverty among blacks is higher than the national average of individual poverty and greater than the prevalence of marriage in our sample.  It is not just extreme poverty; blacks are also much less likely to live in mixed-income communities than either whites or Latinos.

These challenges could be addressed, and communities potentially preserved, even with a policy targeted at all qualified persons regardless of race.  The ecological impact would disproportionately benefit minorities, and unlike MTO-like voucher programs, such a policy would allow poor residents to remain in place, if desired, while at the same time increasing their available income. Extra income would, in effect, lower the neighborhood poverty rate and, in theory, lead to longer-run social investments in the community among stayers. Length of residence requirements could be imposed to counteract attempts to game the system by in-movers, and incentives to move could remain an alternative for residents wishing to leave.[6]

There are encouraging trends that give hope to the idea that revitalizing disadvantaged communities through place-based interventions and individual tax or job policies is not naïve. For one thing, contrary to stereotypes, disadvantaged communities have latent collective efficacy (e.g., organizational capacities; reservoirs of informal social control) that are otherwise suppressed by the cumulative disadvantages built up after repeated everyday challenges.[7] The further good news is that some of the challenges that have accrued to disadvantaged communities have abated.  Violence is down dramatically, people are moving back into cities, racial segregation is down, and immigration is changing the nature of many neighborhoods. Taken together, these facts suggest real prospects for the increased sharing of neighborhoods across race and class boundaries in urban areas that not too long ago were written off or were thought to be “dying.” These trends raise the possibility that with sustained policy interventions, the “black-white” gap that has dominated the urban scene for so long may decline.

There is nothing intrinsic about policy that prevents us from intervening at the community level while attending to the realities and dignity of individual choice. Voucher policies are important and should remain, but rather than privileging a potentially coercive “move out” approach, the time has come for sustained policy investments that give poor individuals an equal chance, if desired, to “move up” in place.



[1]  A compendium of the latest knowledge is found in the July 2015 volume on “Residential Inequality in American Neighborhoods and Communities,” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 

[2]  Perkins, Kristin L., and Robert J. Sampson. 2015. "Compounded Deprivation in the Transition to Adulthood: The Intersection of Racial and Economic Inequality among Chicagoans, 1995-2013." RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences. Special volume on "Severe Deprivation in America," forthcoming.

[3]  Chetty, Raj, and Nathaniel Hendren. 2015. "The Effects of Neighborhoods on Intergenerational Mobility: Childhood Exposure Effects and County Level Estimates."  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, Equality of Opportunity Project Working Paper.   Chetty, Raj, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence F. Katz. 2015. "The Long-Term Effects of Exposure to Better Neighborhoods: New Evidence from the Moving to Opportunity Experiment."  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, Equality of Opportunity Project Working Paper.

[4]  Another variant is to tear down poor communities and disperse residents, as occurred in the Robert Taylor Homes or Cabrini Green projects in Chicago.

[5]  See also Bostic and Whitney, Creating Opportunity for Minority and Low-Income Families.

[6]  For further discussion of this idea and its potential limitations, see Robert J. Sampson, “Individual and Community Economic Mobility in the Great Recession Era: The Spatial Foundations of Persistent Inequality.”  Presented at the Federal Reserve conference on Economic Mobility, April 2, 2015, Washington, DC.   

[7]  Sampson, Robert J., Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect (University of Chicago Press, 2012, chapter 16).

Robert J. Sampson is the Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University, and Director of the Boston Area Research Initiative at the Radcliffe Institute.

More in Discussion 15: Moving Up or Moving Out