• Innovation and Research
  • Department of Sociology
Features & Articles

Compounding Privileges in White, Affluent Neighborhoods Drive Urban Inequality

Howell draped in a red scarf, sitting on a porch ledge with a city street in the background
Data long used by policymakers to address educational inequality between the poor and the affluent in America is getting a more equitable look.  

Children who grow up in extremely poor neighborhoods tend to have worse educational outcomes than their wealthier peers. Sociologists and policymakers who study this phenomenon have long relied on foundational research from the 1980s that focused on these disadvantaged neighborhoods and children, largely ignoring the other half of the societal continuum: affluent neighborhoods.

A new analysis by Junia Howell, assistant professor of sociology at Pitt, is turning that framework on its head. Traditional remedies for inequality such as pouring more resources into disadvantaged spaces, she said, have by and large been “based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the empirical data.”

In the news

Junia Howell’s work on urban inequity is changing how people think about policies in America. An article in The Atlantic’s CityLab recently featured Howell’s paper.

And NPR spoke to her earlier this year about how resources get distributed unevenly among privileged and underprivileged communities — favoring those already advantaged — after a natural disaster.

Like previous researchers, Howell used data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the world’s longest-running household survey begun in 1968. She found that children who grow up in more disadvantaged neighborhoods complete less education than their counterparts growing up in more affluent communities.

However, unlike her predecessors, she found this relationship has little to do with the disadvantaged spaces. Instead, the correlation is due to the compounding privileges in advantaged communities.

In other words, children in advantaged neighborhoods benefit more from their privilege than children in disadvantaged neighborhoods suffer for their obstacles.

Using statistical modeling, Howell developed a “neighborhood privilege index” and a “disadvantage index” to interpret the household data, controlling for gender, race, parents’ income, number of moves and other factors often associated with privilege and educational attainment.

Her analysis showed that white people are concentrated in more advantaged neighborhoods, and they are most strongly influenced by the privilege of their neighborhood. Black residents, in contrast, were spread across more neighborhood types, “though disproportionately concentrated in disadvantaged neighborhoods,” she noted, and their neighborhood’s effect on education was comparatively minimal.

“When we talk about educational inequality, we focus on what is lacking in marginalized communities. However, what my work and the recent admissions scandal illuminate is, addressing educational inequality requires reevaluating how actions aimed at helping one’s own children might be perpetuating inequity.”

When it comes to solving education inequality, “Increasing resources in Black and Latinx neighborhoods and schools is critical,” Howell stressed, but “that is only one part of the story.”

Howell’s work suggests future research and public policies need to address how opportunities are hoarded in privileged spaces, allowing advantaged, mostly white communities to thrive. She said, “without addressing the larger issue of why resources are disproportionately allocated to white communities we will fail to shrink educational inequities.”

Her paper, “The Truly Advantaged: Examining the Effects of Privileged Places on Educational Attainment,” was published last month in The Sociological Quarterly.