Housing policy and education policy are often separate realms in policy debates, but when it comes to issues of integration, the two are closely related.
There has been a rapid increase in the number of Americans living in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty over the last decade, as TCF fellow Paul Jargowsky’s recent analysis of U.S. Census and American Community Survey data shows. As of 2012, 5.6 percent of all U.S. census tracts have a poverty rate of at least 40 percent, up from 3.9 percent in 2000.
As Jargowsky notes, neighborhood poverty has important implications for school segregation:
“After all, schools are largely creations of their surrounding neighborhoods. When poor families reside in neighborhoods apart from middle- and upper-income families, their children are likely to attend schools separate from those of more-affluent children.”
As neighborhood poverty concentrations have increased, so have school poverty concentrations. And all of this matters because research shows concentrated poverty in neighborhoods and in schools has negative effects on educational, health, and economic outcomes.
Indeed, data on school poverty from 2000 to 2012 shows this increase in high-poverty environments, paralleling the neighborhood trends Jargowsky documented.
The percentage of public school students in schools where more than 75 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (available to families making up to 185 percent of the federal poverty threshold) increased from 12 percent in 1999-2000 to 19 percent in 2011-2012, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.
Hatching a Plan
So, which problem came first, residential segregation or educational segregation?
As with chickens and eggs, there’s no easy answer. However, more important is understanding that residential and educational segregation fuel each other. Residential segregation is one of the causes of school segregation, but segregated schools may also exacerbate neighborhood segregation.
Public perceptions of school quality (which, for better or worse, are often directly related to the school’s demographic makeup) drive real estate prices and families’ housing decisions. In fact, 27 percent of parents choose their neighborhood based on the schools, according to research from the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings. When schools are highly segregated, most middle-class families will avoid neighborhoods zoned for high-poverty schools, while low-income families will be priced out of areas zoned for more affluent schools.
The policy implication of this reciprocal relationship is that housing and school policies should work in parallel efforts—and, when possible, coordinated efforts—to promote integration.
Integrated neighborhoods don’t always guarantee integrated schools. Just look at school segregation in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where gerrymandered school districts effectively segregate white and black students even when this makes no geographic sense.
On the other hand, integrated schools may not readily create integrated neighborhoods either. Magnet schools or other choice policies can bring together diverse groups of students from across an area while neighborhoods remain segregated.
When the housing and school integration do overlap, however, results can be powerful.
Inclusionary zoning and other affordable housing policies promote integrated neighborhoods that in turn create opportunities for integrated schools. Studies from TCF’s Heather Schwartz and Stefanie DeLuca demonstrate the dramatic educational benefits that result from having access to integrated schools in integrated neighborhoods.
Conversely, integrating schools can be a first step toward greater residential integration as well. For example, if schools across a region are relatively integrated, middle-class families may choose cheaper real estate in poorer parts of a city, as long as they can still send their children to mixed-income schools. Creating opportunities for affordable housing across an area is easier if access to the best public schools isn’t confined to a few defined neighborhoods.
It doesn’t make sense to put all of our eggs in one basket and wait for a residential integration to pave the way for school integration, or vice versa. We should push forward on both fronts simultaneously, and with luck, the progress in one realm will hatch new opportunities in the other.