American Sociological Association

Why Poor Families Move (And Where They Go): Reactive Mobility and Residential Decisions

Despite frequent moves, low‐income black families are more likely than any other group to churn among disadvantaged neighborhoods, and the least likely to escape them. Traditional explanations for neighborhood inequality invoke racial preferences and barriers to living in high‐income neighborhoods, but recent work suggests that it is also involuntary mobility—such as eviction—which predicts the neighborhood destinations of poor African American families in urban areas. However, we know little about how individuals actually make residential decisions under such unplanned and constrained conditions. Using longitudinal interviews with low‐income African‐American families residing in Mobile, AL, and Baltimore, MD, we describe the array of factors that lead poor black families to move, and describe how families secure housing in the wake of unplanned mobility. We observe that moving among the poor is more reactive than it is voluntary: Approximately 70 percent of most recent moves are catalyzed by landlords, housing quality failures, and violence. We show how this reactive mobility both accelerates and hampers residential selection in ways that may reproduce neighborhood context and inequality. Where mobility is characterized by a greater degree of agency, we show that the strategies families use to make decisions often prohibit them from investigating a wider range of residential options.


Stefanie DeLuca, Holly Wood, and Peter Rosenblatt





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