July 7, 2013

Stuck in Place: A new book well worth reading

July 8, 2013

If you care about the persistence of racial inequality in our country—or about the intersections between poverty and place—you should read Patrick Sharkey’s new book, Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality. I think this book merits a place on the shelf next to Denton and Massey’s American Apartheid and Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged. (A longer version of my reactions to the book appears in the latest edition of Poverty and Race).

Sharkey sheds new light on the persistence of racial inequality, forcing us to confront our tragic lack of progress in closing the income gap between blacks and whites. He shows that the cohort of blacks born after the end of legally sanctioned discrimination and segregation is actually doing worse economically than their parents’ generation.

Stuck in Place also reveals new insights on the intergenerational effects of living in severely distressed neighborhoods. For example, he shows that children whose families lived in poor neighborhoods for two generations score dramatically worse on reading and problem-solving tests than those whose parents grew up in non-poor neighborhoods, other things being equal. Surprisingly, the parents’ neighborhood exposure may be more important than the child’s neighborhood exposure.

The book’s key message for policy is that narrowly targeted, point-in-time interventions will inevitably fall short. What’s required instead are sustained policies operating at multiple levels that recognize the reciprocal effects between people and the places they live.

One of the features I like most about Sharkey’s analysis is that it underscores the need for effective policy at multiple geographic scales: federal, state, local, and neighborhood. Narrowing the racial equity gap requires:

  • a healthy national economy, shaped by federal policies that expand decent-paying jobs with adequate benefits, offer reasonable work supports for low-wage earners, and provide a compassionate safety net for the most vulnerable;
  • contributions at the state level, like Medicaid expansion and alternatives to mass incarceration;
  • vibrant metropolitan economies, reinforced by city and regional policies that promote growth, expand opportunities, and ensure equal access; and
  • targeted investments in the most distressed neighborhoods and intensive supports for struggling families.

Too often, policy debates pit one of these essential elements against another when in fact, the success of policies and investments at every level depends on what happens at other levels.

Sharkey makes it so abundantly clear that if we care about racial equity, we need a web of “place-conscious” policies that expand opportunities, ensure equal access, and provide supports for workers, families, and kids.


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.


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