Neighborhood and Life Chances: How Place Matters in Modern America

Neighborhood and Life Chances: How Place Matters in Modern America

Neighborhood and Life Chances: How Place Matters in Modern America

Neighborhood and Life Chances: How Place Matters in Modern America


Does the place where you lived as a child affect your health as an adult? To what degree does your neighbor's success influence your own potential? The importance of place is increasingly recognized in urban research as an important variable in understanding individual and household outcomes. Place matters in education, physical health, crime, violence, housing, family income, mental health, and discrimination—issues that determine the quality of life, especially among low-income residents of urban areas.

Neighborhood and Life Chances: How Place Matters in Modern America brings together researchers from a range of disciplines to present the findings of studies in the fields of education, health, and housing. The results are intriguing and surprising, particularly the debate over Moving to Opportunity, an experiment conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, designed to test directly the effects of relocating individuals away from areas of concentrated poverty. Its results, while strong in some respects, showed very different outcomes for boys and girls, with girls more likely than boys to experience positive outcomes. Reviews of the literature in education and health, supplemented by new research, demonstrate that the problems associated with residing in a negative environment are indisputable, but also suggest the directions in which solutions may lie.

The essays collected in this volume give readers a clear sense of the magnitude of contemporary challenges in metropolitan America and of the role that place plays in reinforcing them. Although the contributors suggest many practical immediate interventions, they also recognize the vital importance of continued long-term efforts to rectify place-based limitations on lifetime opportunities.


Eugenie L. Birch, Harriet B. Newburger, and Susan M. Wachter

Place matters. Embedded in this apparently simple statement are a host of complex questions about how and why place matters. Does one’s childhood address determine one’s health as an adult? Does the place a student goes home to after school matter as much as the school she actually attends? To what degree is the success of my neighbor implicated in the fortunes of my own family? One overarching question summarizes many of our concerns about place: Does a child from a poor family, where low income may severely restrict residential options, face a double burden in getting ahead—his opportunities constrained not only by the family’s limited resources but also by the conditions in the neighborhood where he lives?

Over the past two decades, the possibility of this double burden has stimulated a great deal of research aimed at understanding the relation between residential location and life chances. Yet despite the common wisdom that place matters, it has proven extremely difficult to pin down just how and how much it matters. Indeed, even definitively documenting that it does matter is beset by difficulties in sorting out the effects of residential location from the effects of other factors on individual and household outcomes, by difficulties in defining and measuring the neighborhood characteristics most relevant to these outcomes, and by difficulties in tracking effects of residential location that may unfold over long time periods.

The problem of “selection bias,” in particular, has plagued researchers engaged in charting the effects of place. We might observe, for example, that children from poor families who grow up in low-poverty neighborhoods are ultimately more successful in the labor market than poor children from high-poverty neighborhoods. But it will be difficult to sort out how much of that greater success is due to living in a low-poverty neighborhood and how much is due to some household characteristic such as high parental motivation which cannot be easily observed, but which may be particularly prevalent among poor families who successfully search for housing in low-poverty neighborhoods.

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