Why It's So Incredibly Difficult to Fight Urban Inequality

The most successful programs require huge cash investments and federal assistance

The story of American cities today is one increasingly defined by a contradiction, as incredible wealth and advantage thrive alongside increasingly intractable pockets of concentrated disadvantage. Perhaps more so than the fact of inequality itself, the stubborn geography of class is the most troubling reality modern cities face.

"The best and the brightest are born in every neighborhood"

Urban divides are nothing new. Researchers and reformers all the way back to the original Chicago School sociologists of the early 20th century long debated the concentration of poverty in lagging urban centers. In the 1960s, white flight to the suburbs led to concern that inner-city neighborhoods were permanently part of a "hole in the doughnut" – a worrying geographic inequality that was the focus of the Johnson administration's Great Society programs. William Julius Wilson’s landmark book The Truly Disadvantaged more recently rekindled interest in the troubling relationship between a child's neighborhood and his chances in life.

Today's divides are different. They no longer reflect a troubled urban core surrounded by affluent suburbs, but rather a fragmented fractal of class that cuts across city and suburb alike.

Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson, the leading contemporary scholar on such "neighborhood effects," has found overall that those in poorer neighborhoods, regardless of their own family’s income, have far worse life chances. As Sampson warned in an insightful op-ed in The New York Times late last month, "the high-end spatial concentration of income and its associated resources, like well-endowed schools, security, abundant services and political connections, in effect pulls up the drawbridge from our neighbors." Even more troubling, this seems to disproportionately affect affluent African American families, who often find themselves living in high poverty neighborhoods – a relationship that NYU professor Patrick Sharkey explored in his recent book Stuck in Place. Last spring, Sampson said something that neatly predicted the rising discussion of neighborhood inequality in New York City: despite gentrification and new investments, "neighborhoods remained remarkably stable in their relative economic standing—whether at the bottom or the top."