Family Mobility and Neighborhood Change

New Evidence and Implications for Community Initiatives

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Document date: November 02, 2009
Released online: November 02, 2009

The text below is an excerpt from the complete document. Read the full report in PDF format.


Americans change residences frequently. Residential mobility can reflect positive changes in a family's circumstances or be a symptom of instability and insecurity. Mobility may also change neighborhoods as a whole. To shed light on these challenges, this report uses a unique survey conducted for the Making Connections initiative. The first component measures how mobility contributed to changes in neighborhoods' composition and characteristics. The second component identifies groups of households that reflect different reasons for moving or staying in place. The final component introduces five stylized models of neighborhood performance: each has implications for low-income families' well-being and for community-change efforts.


Where people live matters. Neighborhood environments have consequences for the families' well-being and their children's long-term life chances. The quality of local public services (particularly schools), the prevalence of crime and violence, the influences of peers and social networks, and the proximity to jobs can all act either to isolate families from social and economic opportunities or to enhance their prospects for the future. A substantial body of social science research finds that growing up in a distressed, highpoverty neighborhood is associated with an increased risk of bad outcomes, including school failure, poor health, delinquency and crime, teen parenting, and joblessness (Ellen and Turner 1997).

Community-Change Initiatives
The recognition that place matters has led to several generations of community-change initiatives that attempt to address conditions thought to negatively affect families and children in poor neighborhoods. Often led by philanthropy and engaging both public and private partners, these initiatives embody a range of strategies intended to benefit residents directly through improved services and indirectly through strengthening social connectedness or access to resources (Kubisch et al. 2002).

Community building is often an explicit goal of these initiatives. Investments are made in building residents' and organizations' human and social capital, so the community gains the capacity to achieve common goods—changes that will benefit the residents (Chaskin 2001; Chaskin, Joseph, and Chipenda-Dansokho 1997). Neighborhood residents' participation is central to community building: "It works by building community in individual neighborhoods: neighbors learning to rely on each other, working together on concrete tasks that take advantage of new self-awareness of their collective and individual assets and in the process creating human, family, and social capital that provides a new base for a more promising future" (Kingsley, McNeely, and Gibson 1997, 7; McNeely 1999, 742).

The Making Connections initiative, conceived and sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, exemplifies these efforts to improve outcomes for families and children by strengthening the communities in which they live. Launched in 1999, Making Connections seeks to strengthen families' connections to economic opportunity, positive social networks, and effective services and supports in disinvested communities. The foundation has worked in partnership with residents, community-based organizations, local government, businesses, and social service providers in target neighborhoods in 10 cities across the country. Specific activities and investments vary from neighborhood to neighborhood but are intended both to connect parents to good jobs and asset-building opportunities and to ensure that their young children benefit from better health care, quality early childhood services, and more intensive supports in the early grades.1

Both the service-reform and community-building aspects of community-change initiatives assume some degree of residential stability in their target areas. For residents to benefit from improved services and conditions in their neighborhoods, they presumably must have access to them for some minimum period of time. And for capacity building to result in a community that can mobilize to achieve the common good, some stability in emerging leaders and networks is needed. Thus, excessive residential mobility can be a challenge to the theories of change underlying community-based improvement initiatives (Kubisch et al. 2002).

(End of excerpt. The entire report is available in PDF format.)

Related Event (audio recording): Who Moves, Who Stays, and the Resilience of Low-Income Communities

Topics/Tags: | Cities and Neighborhoods | Housing

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