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Neighborhoods are Topic of Discussion at ASA Congressional Briefing

by Johanna Ebner, Public Information Assistant

“How Neighborhoods Matter: The Value of Investing at the Local Level” was the theme of a Congressional Briefing held on September 25th in the Rayburn Congressional Office Building. Robert J. Sampson (University of Chicago), Min Zhou (University of California, Los Angeles), and Greg Squires (George Washington University) were featured speakers at the event, which was moderated by Troy Duster (University of California, Berkeley and New York University).

Convened by the American Sociological Association (ASA) and the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA), the Briefing was timed to coincide with events relating to the launch of the Decade of Behavior on September 25th. Despite inclement weather, over 70 people from congressional offices, federal agencies, and non-profit organizations attended the event.

Congressional briefings are presented as part of ASA’s Spivack Program in Applied Social Research and Social Policy. Both the ASA and COSSA hold such events to bring findings from social science research to the attention of the policy community.

The focus of this session was on how and why neighborhoods matter above and beyond the individual attributes of their residents. The three presenters addressed issues such as how neighborhood conditions are intertwined in producing health-related risks, how neighborhoods connect to different patterns of school achievement in children and youth, and how discrimination affects the quality of life and even the costs of living in neighborhoods.

Sampson began the discussion by observing that neighborhood contexts should be considered as important units of analysis in their own right. He said that understanding the pathways to healthy or unhealthy communities may suggest strategies for preventive intervention at a lower cost than traditional methods. Sampson noted that empirical research demonstrates that risk factors associated with urban neighborhoods, such as poverty, dilapidated housing, and rapid residential turnover are strongly related to other indicators of dysfunctional communities such as high rates of infant mortality, low birthweight, tuberculosis, crime, physical abuse, and violence. He also noted that, “there is this inequality or systematic variation across neighborhoods. I think it is fair to say that two of the key dimensions have to do with the concentration of disadvantage and racial segregation.”

Zhou shared research findings on ethnic neighborhoods in Los Angeles’s Chinatown, Koreatown, and the Pico-Union section, focusing on three basic issues: What immigrant neighborhoods are like in inner cities, how risk factors associated with immigrant status and ghetto conditions affect immigrant children and their families, and how these neighborhoods create social resources for the education of immigrant children. She noted that children and residents living in immigrant neighborhoods tend to be poor, socially isolated from mainstream society, live in substandard housing with unsafe streets, and are handicapped by inadequate schools, high dropout rates, low academic achievement, and poor English skills. Emphasizing the importance of education and investing in communities, she said that, “research shows that how we invest in the neighborhood can affect how well the children do in those inner cities.”

Squires addressed the topic of segregation, observing that today it is about as taken for granted as any feature of urban communities. “We all have mental maps of what are the good areas and what are the bad areas in our communities—and too often these maps are color coded.” He demonstrated how patterns of housing segregation are largely the outcome of a variety of institutional practices of the private housing industry and public policy at all levels of government. Echoing the findings reported earlier by Sampson, Squires noted that racial segregation is also clearly connected to the increasing concentration of poverty. “If there is any one message that I would like to leave you with today it is that the phenomena of racial segregation, concentrated poverty, and sprawl are all pieces of the same process of uneven metropolitan development. “

The presentations were followed by a lively discussion period where questions on a wide range of issues, including on planned communities, gentrification, and merits of policies to improve conditions in neighborhoods, were raised. A transcription of the session and the background materials for the briefing will be published as part of the ASA Issues Series in Social Research and Social Policy in early winter. Keep watching Footnotes for an advertisement or e-mail