Traps and Stepping Stones: Neighborhood Dynamics and Family Well-Being
AbstractStudies of context effects - for example, effects of neighborhoods, schools, kinship units, or all of these - on human behavior and well-being now span the social sciences and pose some of the most daunting analytic problems faced by social researchers. Understanding such effects is particularly important as metropolitan areas in the U.S. face continued economic restructuring and large-scale demographic change from migration, aging, and other forces, and as policymakers and researchers seek to understand and respond to increased economic inequality and its consequences. To date, however, almost all relevant research has either studied processes of neighborhood change (hinting at possible effects on individuals and families) or of human development (including possible effects of neighborhood characteristics). This theoretical essay argues strongly for integrating these largely separate enterprises and outlines basic frameworks for doing so. I discuss three dynamic functions - neighborhood change, individual exposure to risks and resources, and life course transitions - that contribute to neighborhood effects and use simple Markovian risk models to illustrate the importance of housing choices and outcomes over time. Neighborhoods may be thought of as traps, stepping stones, or springboards for families navigating the life course, not just stable, upgrading, or declining (in traditional terms). As such, efforts to leverage neighborhood context to improve child and family well-being must consider how housing mobility relates to other family strategies for getting by, getting ahead, and propelling the next generation. Keywords: neighborhood effects, contextual models, risk analysis, housing mobility, human development, poverty, segregation.
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