What is a low income neighborhood

The neighborhood problem and how to face it

The year 2020 will be determined by two major crises: on the one hand the Covid-19 pandemic and on the other hand the blatant racism in Western societies, which has now become clearly public awareness. Both crises are regularly concentrated on certain parts of the city and their effects are particularly noticeable at the municipal level. In many cases, it is the same neighborhoods that are hardest hit by both Covid-19 and racism. This fact should ring the alarm bells among politicians, because it is about the sores and inequalities in these neighborhoods in European and North American cities.

Social hot spots are particularly badly affected by the pandemic

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in February and March, the number of infected people in the centers of large cities rose explosively, triggered by international travel. In many countries, the increase then concentrated strongly on neighborhoods in the urban periphery, on large housing estates and on the more central suburbs with low incomes. If you look at city maps with statistical figures on corona infected people, the neighborhoods with the highest infection rates at the apex of the pandemic - in late spring and early summer 2020 - are also the neighborhoods where most of the ethnic or religious minorities, immigrants or refugees live. This is true in many cities in the western world such as Paris, Munich, Barcelona, ​​Stockholm, New York, Toronto, Montreal or Houston.

Very often these are also low-income neighborhoods. Over the past decade, scientists in Europe and North America have used increasingly precise research methods to show that these quarters have comparatively low cross-generational socio-economic mobility. In other words, children who grow up in these neighborhoods have significantly less chance of better education and better incomes than their parents. Many experts believe that socio-economic mobility and inequality are more concentrated in certain geographic areas.

The crises of 2020 taught us painfully that these neighborhoods are particularly vulnerable to problems and affected by the “mobility trap”. The major economic, social and health problems that we often perceive as global or national can often be better understood if we understand them as problems of specific city districts. And it may well be that the most effective solutions start at the local level of these neighborhoods.

I recently led an online workshop at the Robert Bosch Academy that brought together international experts from various disciplines who deal with the local dimensions of social and economic problems. There were specialists in economics, geography, sociology, urban planning and district management who followed different approaches and drew different conclusions. But there was a broad consensus that inequalities and immobility at the local level are neglected or overlooked by governments and regional leaders in politics and administration. This is especially true when the problems affect groups of immigrants and refugees, historically marginalized minorities, and post-industrial or post-socialist societies.

George Gabler, Professor of Urban Studies at Wayne State University, aptly summed up the problem: “The challenges faced by immigrant groups, refugees ... non-white or indigenous groups are concentrated in the same geographic locations. Because these groups live most separated from the majority, they are disproportionately represented in the lowest income brackets and have the least intergenerational socio-economic mobility. "

However, most participants also believed that political action can do something about the vulnerability of these neighborhoods to remove barriers to upward mobility, inclusion and integration. These political initiatives would not only affect the precarious neighborhoods themselves, but also improve the quality of life of the families and communities that shape them. Here are some of the key recommendations from the experts.

Recommendation 1: Recognize the new relevance of certain neighborhoods for the settlement and integration of immigrants!

One factor that has exacerbated local inequalities and mobility barriers in the 21st century is that immigrants in many parts of Europe and North America are settling in large urban areas on the periphery and in the suburbs close to the center. In the late 20th century, however, immigrants lived in densely populated districts in the immediate vicinity of the city center. But that has changed significantly in the past two decades. Immigrants and refugees have moved to less populated urban areas that are further from the center. This development was accompanied by various forms of poverty and the spatial concentration of ethnic groups. In many European cities, this was triggered by the government's settlement policy for immigrants, which was particularly noticeable during the migration-related crisis of 2015 and 2016. This settlement policy accommodated newcomers in unpopular, readily available housing on the urban periphery. In other major cities, the housing market has pushed migrant communities and low-income people to closer suburbs as inner cities have become more popular with affluent, better-off families. Much of this had to do with the success of previous generations of immigrants.

"These previously typical neighborhoods in which former immigrants settled are no longer available," says Dr. Nihad El-Kayed, research assistant at the Berlin Institute for Empirical Integration and Migration Research (BIM) at the Humboldt University in Berlin. “Nowadays people probably don't move to these highly functionalized, diverse inner-city quarters, but rather to the outskirts. And these new destinations for immigrants are often purely residential areas with high-rise buildings that are neither densely populated nor functionally diverse. "

Rising segregation and lack of resources in these neighborhoods, as well as the difficulty of finding better homes and schools, have led some residents to say they feel “trapped”. In Europe, this feeling is the result of an unfortunate combination of several factors preventing social and spatial mobility: government benefits, public housing and immigration policies. The sociologist Dr. Matthias Bernt researches large housing projects in Germany at the Leibniz Institute for Spatial Social Research. He found that economic and ethnic segregation in districts with large housing complexes has increased dramatically over the past decade. The reason: As a result of a reform of the social housing subsidies by the state, the rent of the housing benefit recipients is paid directly to private housing companies, which previously manage non-profit housing complexes for social housing.

In combination with the settlement policy of the federal states, which forces migrants to stay in a district, in a city or in a region, this means that refugees are “locked in” in the apartments assigned to them. Often only other recently arrived migrants or refugees live in these residential complexes. So these people have few opportunities to make socio-economic progress. Bernt concludes: "This political framework functions as a segregation machine that is not driven by the invisible hand of the market, but by the welfare state."

Recommendation 2: Make physical mobility and relocation easier for residents!

Life doesn't happen within a single neighborhood. Even poor and newly arrived residents do not limit themselves to one district, be it in daily life or in the course of their family life.

Adults have to visit other parts of the city every day: to work, shop, attend meetings or religious gatherings, in their social life or to take advantage of educational offers. When running a store or a business, they rely on people from different neighborhoods as customers. They often send their children to schools in other parts of the city to improve their educational opportunities. Even if they move out of a “difficult” neighborhood, they are likely to keep coming back to shop, attend church services, and maintain their social life.

The people who live in the new migrant housing developments in the suburbs close to the city often rely on slower and more commuter public transport links to get to other parts of the city, although there are a few exceptions. This turned out to be dangerous in the months when the Covid-19 crisis was sharpest. Because the residents of these quarters are more likely to work in so-called “systemically relevant” professions, commuters were forced to have long-term contact with other people in closed rooms.

So the decision to move to another neighborhood is of paramount importance to many immigrants and low-income residents. Many scholars have made the same observation: moving to another part of the city to find a new, more promising place to live with the whole family, or to find a better school for the children in a middle-class neighborhood, is a key strategy for the social Ascent.

But urban districts where immigrants live now mostly consist of uniform apartment buildings offered by private landlords, public housing associations, or a combination of both. Better houses or apartments are rarely available in the same neighborhood that enable social mobility in the same place. The supply crisis in the housing market over the past decade has driven up rental and purchase prices in most major cities around the world. As a result, the old immigrant strategy of renting an apartment in a low-income neighborhood for a few years and then moving to a better neighborhood is no longer so easy to implement. The “few years” can turn into a decade or two.

The isolation and lack of shopping, business or other services in these suburbs closer to the center also means that newcomers have less contact with people who can help them. For example, those who lend them money, give them a job or teach them the language.

“I think the big difference between now and then is that it is much more difficult for new immigrants to access typical neighborhoods of their own ethnicity or origin. Neighborhoods with an ethnic economy and ethnic networks, where immigrants can, at least initially, find the really important infrastructure that can help them with self-organization, dealing with authorities and many other things, ”says Dr. Christine Barwick, sociologist at the Berlin Center Marc Bloch. In her publications, she examines the moving and staying strategies migrants use in European cities to improve their situation. "Access to ethnic neighborhoods is much more restricted now."

Limitations in physical mobility are often the cause of limitations in socio-economic mobility. That makes neighborhoods vulnerable to crises. It has been shown that even small measures that improve the speed and safety of transport links have positive effects for entire groups of the population. Housing diversification can pave the way for advancement to the middle class within a neighborhood - especially when monopolies of housing construction and rental companies in a neighborhood are broken up. Housing policies that make it easier for low-income families and immigrant families to move to other neighborhoods - a popular measure in North America - also have similar, proven ways to improve results.

Recommendation 3: Invest in advancement opportunities within neighborhoods

A tendency can be observed in many neighborhoods in which almost exclusively immigrants live: the chances of social advancement remain poor. Not just for those who stay in the neighborhood, but for the neighborhood and its institutions as a whole. A downward spiral of deteriorating living standards and living conditions begins. This is because some residents manage to move away or send their children to schools with better reputations outside the neighborhood. These are the more ambitious, influential immigrant families and the more tolerant, low-income families who are also affectionate for advancement and who were born in the respective neighborhood. The families with the least resources and skills are left behind. Schools follow the same pattern: the better teachers can be transferred to better schools. There remain uninspired school classes who prevent other families from staying and have a high proportion of school leavers without a qualification.

A number of large cities, including Amsterdam, Berlin and London, have succeeded in investing large amounts of money in so-called specialty schools in socially disadvantaged urban districts with many immigrants. These schools are designed to attract students from wealthier neighborhoods and encourage local children to stay in school. Many cities have also successfully built higher-priced apartments for members of the lower middle class in economically weaker residential areas. This can pave the way for social advancement in these neighborhoods and bring the population density to a more appealing level.

Nevertheless, some experts warn that new buildings and new institutions alone do not necessarily improve the situation of residents. Carl Mossfeldt, an urban development strategist based in Stockholm, has observed that investments in apartments and institutions such as schools only bring real change if they happen structurally and if they focus directly on neighborhoods. At the same time, government or administrative institutions must be involved on several levels. Actions must also be accompanied by programs that focus on local communities and allow residents greater control over changes in their neighborhood.

According to the experts, the core of the problems lies not only with schools or apartments, but also with a lack of investment in these neighborhoods at all levels. The neighborhoods with low social mobility often visibly suffer from a lack of social and cultural facilities and the lack of a visible presence of state institutions. The only exception is the police.

Scott Allard, professor of social policy at the University of Washington and author of Places in Need: The Changing Geography of Poverty, found that per capita spending on social and health services in the United States - this includes resources spent on fighting disease, unemployment and poverty, and on integration - is almost seven times higher in inner-city areas than in the suburbs. This discrepancy may not be that great in Europe, but it is clearly observable and measurable in the neighborhoods of the urban periphery.

"In places with higher poverty rates, access to and provision of these services is poor," says Allard. "And that's why it's hard to talk about social mobility without talking about ethnic and class segregation."

Recommendation 4: give the next generation a better chance!

What makes certain neighborhoods defenseless and creates inequalities is the fundamental fact that children are unable to have a better education, higher income and higher quality of life than their parents. Experts differ on whether this is due to urban planning and isolation, inadequate state institutions, a lack of economic opportunities or simply to racism and marginalization. But they all agree that any measure aimed at improving the situation in these urban districts must start with positive opportunities for the next generation - and that when the children and young people are as young as possible.

“There is a lack of imagination in these communities.From an early age, these children learn what is impossible, ”says Jay Pitter, an urban development consultant and senior fellow at the Canadian Urban Institute, who grew up in an apartment on the outskirts of Toronto. This is the area where Covid-19 cases and segregation were highest. “This is also evident in the special offers for the leisure sector: There is a basketball court, for example, but no swimming pool and no library. There may be stores that cash a check or a liquor store. It's like a message to the children: This is possible for you in your neighborhood - and it is not. "

Early childhood education programs and access to day-care centers and educational opportunities outside of working hours have already shown clearly positive effects on members of the second generation of immigrants. The economist Miles Corak, professor at City University New York, named innovative programs to support the education of children from early childhood to late teenage years: tickets for public transport, mentoring programs and support with the transition to a secondary school type.

Marc Parés, professor of geography on leave at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and currently a member of the Catalan Parliament, said: “The level of public investment in urban areas makes a difference in terms of economic security and quality of life. ... Where governments have invested in things like early childhood education and schools in the past few decades, people have organized themselves more to deal with a difficult situation. "

As we learned the hard way this year, these neighborhoods are well worth investing time and resources in. In this way, they can evolve from hotspots of the next economic crisis and pandemics to places of hope and resilience where a new generation is growing up to take the lead in the fight against problems.


Doug Saunders is a fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy and researches the roots of social and economic problems at the neighborhood level. He is the author of several books on cities and migration, among others Arrival City, and writes on International Affairs for the Canadian daily The Globe and Mail.