The Neighborhood Effect: 25 Years After William Julius Wilson Changed Urban Sociology. Is Anyone Else Listening?
Jacqueline lived in one of the most toxic environments in urban America. If you’ve seen The Wire, HBO’s series about crime and punishment in Baltimore, you can picture daily life in her neighborhood on that city’s West Side. Drug dealers. Junkies. Shootings. Her high-rise housing project felt like a concrete cell. Jacqueline, a single mother with a sick child, was desperate to escape.
Then she got a ticket out. In the mid-1990s, Jacqueline volunteered to participate in a far-reaching social experiment that would shed new light on urban poverty. The federal government gave her and many others housing vouchers to move out of ghettos—with a condition. Jacqueline (a pseudonym used by researchers to protect her privacy) had to use the voucher in an area where at least 90 percent of the residents lived above the federal poverty line.
It’s unlikely that Jacqueline had heard of William Julius Wilson, but the experiment that would change her life traces its intellectual roots in part to the Harvard sociologist’s 1987 book, The Truly Disadvantaged. Wilson upended urban research with his ideas about how cities had transformed in the post-civil-rights period. Writing to explain the rise of concentrated poverty in black inner-city neighborhoods after 1970, he focused on the loss of manufacturing jobs and the flight of black working- and middle-class families, which left ghettos with a greater proportion of poor people. And he examined the effects of extreme poverty and “social isolation” on their lives. The program that transplanted Jacqueline, Moving to Opportunity, was framed as a test of his arguments about “whether neighborhoods matter” in poor people’s lives.