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Beyond Concentrated Poverty: The Dynamics of Mixed-Income Neighborhoods


In the first comprehensive study of mixed-income neighborhoods in the US, IGERT trainee Laura Tach of Harvard University has identified two neglected questions of great interest to social scientists and to policymakers: why are mixed-income neighborhoods so scarce, and what difference would it make if they became more common?

Tach, who completed her Ph.D. in Sociology & Social Policy this year as a doctoral fellow in the Harvard Multidisciplinary Disciplinary Program in Inequality & Social Policy, a National Science Foundation IGERT initiative, explains that the landscape of urban poverty in America had changed dramatically over the past two decades as policymakers sought to revitalize low-income neighborhoods physically and socially by tearing down public housing projects in high poverty neighborhoods and replace them with mixed-income housing.

These efforts had been driven in part by social science research, which argued that high poverty communities were persistent and a source of many adverse consequences for residents, stemming from the lack of access to middle-class social networks, resources, and institutions, as well as weak social organization and influence in city politics. The premise was that low-income residents in more mixed-income neighborhoods would be less likely confront such problems. Yet until now there had been little existing research to guide these expectations.

It turns out, Tach’s research revealed, that mixed-income neighborhoods have in fact become increasingly common features of the metropolitan landscape since 1970, accounting for almost one-fifth of census tracts by 2000. Not all mixed-income neighborhoods are created equal, however, varying in their racial composition, housing, and spatial characteristics, which in turn shape neighborhood social dynamics and long-term prospects for stability. Many residents are willing and able to live in mixed-income neighborhoods, but Tach’s research reveals that the duration of exposure is often short-lived, with the result that few mixed-income neighborhoods remain stably mixed across multiple decades.

Tach argues that the social dynamics within mixed-income neighborhoods depend on whether income differences correspond with other more visible markers of status, including racial-ethnic differences, the presence of public housing, or length of residency. Drawing on case studies of three Boston mixed-income neighborhoods, Tach shows that in places where income differences and these status markers overlap, low-income and high-income residents have little contact with each other. Their daily routines take them to separate places within the neighborhood, and friction occurs in places where they do have contact.

Tach’s findings represent a challenge to standard assumptions about mixed-income neighborhoods in American urban life. The implication for housing policies is that policymakers and developers may be fighting an uphill battle to maintain neighborhood economic diversity over a sustained period of time. The difficulty is not simply creating mixed-income neighborhoods but sustaining them so that they do not displace original low-income residents through gentrification or fall back into a disadvantaged state. At the same time, mixed-neighborhoods are not a silver bullet; they have many challenges that social science research can illuminate, and which must be addressed in housing policies. With a fuller understanding of the temporal and social fragility of mixed-income neighborhoods, policymakers can develop and implement tools to support, rather than undermine, neighborhood economic integration.

Address Goals

This research challenges the predominant assumptions about the prevalence, persistence, and social consequences of mixed-income neighborhoods in America through the careful application of social science research at the intersection of sociology, economics, and public policy. It addresses an important policy concern—the deconcentration of poverty in contemporary America and the economic integration of its communities as experienced in the daily neighborhood lives of residents. It advances the frontiers of knowledge by identifying two important questions that press at the margins of conventional disciplinary boundaries, and through the application of varied methodological approaches (from quantitative analysis of census data to extensive qualitative interviews and neighborhood case studies) fostered by the IGERT program.