The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 1, 2011

The Costs of Segregation

June 1, 2011

I’ve just spent the past week in the UK working with a colleague in Birmingham comparing community revitalization there and here the past few years. As always, spending time in “deprived” communities in the UK puts what’s happening in US cities in a new light. Yes, the context is very different, but the challenges of poverty and inequality are strikingly similar. For example, Birmingham has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the UK, which in turn ranks first in Europe. As in the US, policy makers are hungry for evidence-based interventions that can help break this cycle and help more youth become healthy, successful adults. The key difference? In the US, teen pregnancy is mainly an issue for poor minority communities. In Birmingham, many of the youth on risky trajectories are white.

I moved on to a conference in Belfast, a beautiful and depressing city that illustrates how segregation undermines poor communities. Although the sectarian violence has largely ended, the city is still divided by class and religion. The “Peace Wall,” a huge and intimidating structure, separates working class Catholic and Protestant communities. On the Catholic side, some houses are enclosed with gates made of steel bars to keep residents inside from throwing anything over the wall. Catholic children attend schools that look like prisons—surrounded by fences and security gates much like those schools have in the worst US neighborhoods. Protestant children attend Protestant schools on the other side of the wall. More affluent families send their children to the few “integrated” schools, generally regarded as better for the children but out of reach for most families, and also have the advantage of living in areas that aren’t carved up by ominous and threatening walls. People I met in Belfast generally agreed that integration was important, especially to keep the conflict from re-emerging in the next generation, but seemed to have little hope that anything would change.

Peace Wall in Belfast

Peace wall in Belfast

As an American, I was initially baffled by the situation in Belfast. After all, these are all Irish people who share a common culture, race, and history. But then I reflected that in the US, we have been grappling for decades with racial and economic segregation in our schools and neighborhoods. Although the evidence indicates that separate is not equal—even middle-class African-American communities lack the high- quality schools, libraries, parks, and stores that are standard fare in similar white communities - policy makers have little appetite for taking on these challenges. And, as in Belfast, the violence within poor, segregated communities is blighting children’s lives. It’s not as if we don’t know these facts; it’s just that somehow seeing them in a different context—without the overlay of race—makes them even more stark.  

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