Academic journal article Cityscape

Getting Children out of Harm's Way

Academic journal article Cityscape

Getting Children out of Harm's Way

Article excerpt

Society has long thought about poverty, at least since Charles Dickens indelibly pictured Oliver Twist's searing experiences. Focused thinking about "concentrated poverty," however, did not really begin until the 1987 publication of William Julius Wilson's The Truly Disadvantaged, which "revolutionized stratification research" (Clampet-Lundquist and Massey, 2008).1 In the ensuing years, we have learned much about the effects of concentrated poverty, especially on young children. That learning should inform our response to the present point of contention.

Two recent books capture important parts of that learning: Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress Toward Racial Equality, by Patrick Sharkey (2013a), and Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect, by Robert J. Sampson (2012). Taken together, the two books, which have been highly praised,2 support the following propositions (among others).

1. Independent of personal characteristics, living in severely distressed neighborhoods has serious negative effects on residents'-especially children's-well-being.

2. The effects of neighborhood disadvantage in childhood continue to have strong impacts as children move into adulthood.

The "great neighborhood divide," as Sampson (2012) calls it, extends to many aspects of life that are "shaped by where you live" (Sampson, 2013), such as verbal skill development, exposure to violence, health, teenage pregnancy, and economic success.3

These Sharkey and Sampson views are supported, directly or indirectly, by a large body of research. The well-known Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study (Felitti et ah, 1998) and the considerable literature it has spawned have disclosed the baleful effects of adverse childhood experiences on adult well-being.4 Medical research on brain development in the very early years of life has discovered causal links between stress and trauma in early years and their lifelong effects.5 The linkages between childhood stress and trauma and growing up in concentrated-poverty neighborhoods have been better documented.6

A familiar aspect of concentrated poverty is its racial overlay. For example, seven times as many African-American children live in high-poverty neighborhoods as do White children (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2013).7 It is also familiar that the overlay is not accidental but results to a considerable degree from deliberate governmental actions and inaction, including in the realm of housing policy. This oft-told story is recounted in several classic studies.8

Among responses to the question of what to do about racially suffused, concentrated urban poverty for which governments are so largely responsible, two loom large in policy discussions. One ("neighborhood transformation" or "revitalizing") is to improve concentrated-poverty neighborhoods; the other ("mobility") is to enable residents to escape to better neighborhoods. Sharkey (2013a) urges that the former should be the primary approach. (Sampson [2012], although not making a formal recommendation, devotes most of his remedial discussion to revitalizing.)

There are at least two reasons to be unenthusiastic about Sharkey's advice. First, the report card on revitalizing initiatives is disappointing. As many studies have shown, the fact is that, after countless tries, we have failed to demonstrate that we know how to revitalize severely distressed neighborhoods.9

Second, revitalizing is not a stand-alone policy. Sharkey (2013a) acknowledges that revitalizing efforts are unlikely to be effective on their own, citing numerous attempts that have been overwhelmed by broader economic, political, and demographic forces. They require, he says, an array of supporting investments in health, government jobs, transportation, criminal justice, policing, regional government, immigration policy, and research and development; revitalizing efforts that lack these investments are "doomed for failure. …

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