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The Persistent Inequality of Neighborhoods

The places we’re born have a profound influence on our ability to move up the economic ladder.
Water leaks from a fire hydrant in front of two boarded-up, vacant houses in Detroit, Michigan.
Water leaks from a fire hydrant in front of two boarded-up, vacant houses in Detroit, Michigan.Rebecca Cook/Reuters

America’s surging economic inequality has been blamed for everything from crony capitalism to the displacement of once good-paying jobs by globalization and new technology. But according to a major recent study, the real culprit in both the growing gap between the rich and poor can be traced to the neighborhoods in which we are born and raised.

The study, which expands on the crucial ongoing work of the Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson and included in a larger economic mobility report from the St. Louis Fed, examines the rise of neighborhood inequality and its effects on the economic mobility of Americans. The study asks two basic questions: “How mobile are neighborhoods?” and “How mobile are individuals across neighborhood income types?” It draws on Census data for neighborhoods across the U.S as a whole from 1990 to 2012, and even more detailed data from the 2014 Mixed-Income Project (MIP) to track the effects of neighborhood location on the life trajectories of people in two of America’s largest cities: Chicago and Los Angeles.