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The Continuing Drag of Segregation on America’s Cities

In some of America’s largest cities, low-poverty black neighborhoods share similar outcomes to high-poverty white neighborhoods. But there’s a glimmer of hope in high-school graduation numbers.

Commuters crowd a bus coming up Michigan Avenue from the South Side.   Photo: Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune

One of the ongoing discussions in Chicago—in academia and journalism, if not in politics—is segregation. The city is infamous for being, by most measures, the most segregated city in the country; it more or less invented the 20th-century legal regime of segregation that cities such as Baltimore borrowed heavily from.

But what is the problem with segregation?

It actually doesn’t have to be a stupid question. It’s so frequently assumed to be a natural, instinctive process—rather than one that was imposed by law and by vigilante urban terrorism for much of the 20th century—that the question will get asked. And each attempt to answer the question generally produces yet more evidence of its deleterious effects—and often, the positive (if modestly so) effects of policies.

Recently two researchers at the Cleveland Fed took a run at the neighborhood effects of segregation, something that sociologists such as Robert Sampson and Patrick Sharkey have studied at length. For convenient categories and historical resonance, they use the same categories as the Moving to Opportunity program, one of the most famous and more effective economic desegregation programs: high and low poverty neighborhoods, with a cutoff of 10 percent poverty; and white or black neighborhoods, with a cutoff of 80-percent majority.

It’s also meant to question the premise of MTO: that moving from a high-poverty neighborhood to a low-poverty neighborhood necessarily means that the other qualities of a good neighborhood will follow (such as a low unemployment rate, or a high educational-attainment rate) if racial segregation is not addressed.

Broadly speaking, this is their conclusion: “For several of the important characteristics that determine neighborhood quality, black low-poverty neighborhoods are more comparable to white high-poverty neighborhoods than to white low-poverty neighborhoods.” But there are interesting differences.

In particular, note the differences between high school and college graduates.

The gist is this: black low-poverty neighborhoods do better than white high-poverty neighborhoods in terms of high-school graduates. But not in terms of college graduates.

What interests the authors about that fact is that if you moved from, say, a white high-poverty neighborhood to a black-low poverty neighborhood, you would not, on average, be surrounded by more college graduates.

Or more employed people:

In other words, the unemployment rate in white high-poverty and black low-poverty neighborhoods is extremely similar.

But go back to the graph about high-school graduates, the one instance among the authors’ criteria where black low-poverty neighborhoods have demonstrably superior outcomes to white high-poverty neighborhoods. It’s also where governments, at all levels, have mandates to improve those outcomes, the direct ability to improve them, and have made considerable efforts to do so.

The research that James Heckman has done suggests those improvements have not been as encouraging as the statistics would indicate; to make a long story short, GEDs inflate the number of high-school graduates, and GEDs do not produce the same life outcomes as actual high-school diplomas. But that may be and is even likely the result of pursuing bad policy, not the impossibility of changing outcomes through policy.

It’s a disheartening study—but perhaps it’s disheartening not in the sense of what can’t be done, but what hasn’t been done.

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