The geography of opportunity: Low-income families in the suburbs and related topics

The geography of opportunity: Race and housing choice in Metropolitan America, edited by Xavier de Souza Briggs, was published in 2005, before the Great Recession of 2008.

Nonetheless, the book covers topics that remain of interest.

Chapter 7 is entitled “New capabilities in new places: Low-income black families in suburbia.”

The chapter begins with a comment that, traditionally, housing assistance seeks only to provide shelter. The point is made, however, that recent research suggests there is much to be said for combining housing with residential mobility strategies.

In this way families can have access to social and economic opportunities which can improve their lives. What is known as the Gautreaux program is credited with enabling low-income families to move to white middle-class suburbs throughout the six-county Metropolitan area of Chicago.

The chapter refers as well to the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program, in which low-income families moved to low-poverty neighbourhoods in five metropolitan areas, mainly in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City.

Research on such residential mobility programs indicates changes in participants attitudes, behavior, and performance. The research also suggests “important caveats about the limits of place as an arbiter of opportunity” (p. 150).

Chapter 7 concludes (p. 174) that the research cited in the discussion indicates that “regardless of their initial preferences, participants came to accept the suburban norms. They decided to adopt these new norms, and they received substantial benefits from complying with them. These participants might not have chosen to live in the suburbs if they had been offered an alternative safe environment. But the vast majority did not return to the city. We believe that many Gautreaux participants became different people: They had different norms, different preferences, and different expectations.

“Just as [James Samuel] Coleman suggests, they acquired capabilities from living in the suburbs and from becoming suburbanites, and if Coleman is correct, they would have lost those capabilities had they returned to their old city neighbourhoods.”


The book’s concluding paragraph (p. 339) shares – I paraphrase – the following overview:

The United States is undergoing rapid social change. This entails among other things increased racial and ethnic diversity, growing economic inequality, and an aging population.

The promises and strains associated with this change according to the author will register in ways in which communities choose to develop:

“There is nothing natural or inevitable about the current shape of things – the uneven geography of opportunity, the sprawl in housing and jobs, the sharp segregation by race and class. Nor are the alternatives to these patterns predetermined. But communities do have choices, and we should get on with the work of understanding and pursuing them.”

Where the other half lives

Where the other half lives (2010) offers a more recent overview of related topics.

Among the chapters I found of particular interest in the latter cross-national treatment of housing topics are two chapters by Jason Hackworth:

Chapter 10: “Destroyed by HOPE: public housing, neoliberalism and progressive housing activism in the US.”

HOPE refers to Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere.

Chapter 11: “Political marginalisation,  misguided nationalism and the destruction of Canada’s Social Housing Systems.”

Update:  A May 20, 2013 New York Times article describes increases in poverty rates in suburban American cities.


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