USC Sol Price Center for Social Innovation:

Sociologist reports only minor progress in racial equality over last 40 years

February 27, 2015

By Matthew Kredell

On basic measures of economic status, wealth and earnings, there has been virtually no progress on racial equality since the early 1970s, said Patrick Sharkey during a Feb. 17 lecture hosted by the USC Sol Price Center for Social Innovation.

An associate professor of sociology at New York University, Sharkey shared the provocative findings from his book Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress Toward Racial Equality. The USC Price School of Public Policy’s Urban Growth Seminar Series and the METRANS Transportation Center co-sponsored the talk.

Sharkey provided statistical evidence of the stark inequality for African American families that’s occurred since the civil rights advances of the 1960s, explained why there have been racial gaps in economic mobility over time and suggested the implications for urban policy.

“The vast majority of black American families currently living in poor neighborhoods have lived in similarly poor neighborhoods for multiple generations,” Sharkey said. “This is part of their family history to live in a disadvantaged environment. What I argue in the book is that this empirical fact should really change how we think about and study neighborhood equality.”

Sharkey presented that even African American families who were doing fairly well a generation ago have experienced extremely high rates of downward mobility. More than half of black children raised in middle-class families moved downward in the income distribution when they reached adulthood.

Sharkey asserts that the persistence of income inequality comes down to the different environments in which people are raised. More than half (52 percent) of African American families live in high-poverty neighborhoods over consecutive generations, compared to 7 percent of whites. Black families making $100,000 a year or more live in more disadvantaged neighborhoods than whites making less than $30,000.

“Just this figure alone tells you that something is going on in American neighborhoods that is not driven by income, not driven by wealth, but is unique to this interaction between race and urban inequality,” Sharkey said. “The basic pattern here is very clear. Black and white children continue to live in entirely different social worlds.”

Sharkey noted that living in poorer neighborhoods during childhood increases the probability of downward mobility by about half. Black and white families that look very similar in terms of economic profile diverge because the black families are much more likely to live in a disadvantaged environment that has lower-quality institutions, most notably schools, and social support organizations.

With neighborhood inequality having persisted over time and affecting the trajectories of families for multiple generations, Sharkey argues that urban policy needs be made more durable.

“We have to think about policies that are more than short-term initiatives that provide influxes of resources into a community for a few years,” Sharkey said. “We need to think about housing mobility programs that do more than provide a short-term excursion out of a poor neighborhood, but really create sustained changes in the type of environment where families live and more transformative opportunities for families in their new environments.”

Sharkey contends that the reason there has not been sustained investment in low-income areas of color is because federal urban policy is based on a narrative linking central cities with race and violent crime, creating a policy agenda focused on abandonment and punishment.

However, he notes that violent crime in the United States has dropped by half since the early 1990s, and the biggest drops have occurred in the places that were the most violent. This makes him optimistic that an opening for a new model on urban policy is in the near future.

“I really like the idea that we’re sort of at this inflection point in the United States,” said Sean Angst, a master of public policy student at USC Price. “There’s a time now where this narrative is starting to shift to create this new national policy. I hope to craft policy someday, so I’ll be taking the lessons learned from this event and thinking about what I can do to contribute to the research on the next urban policy.”