Compounded Privilege in White Neighborhoods Is the Real Driver for Economic Inequality

A recent study from the University of Pittsburgh has found that the real driver of economic inequality is the compounded privilege in White neighborhoods, rather than the disadvantage faced by residents of Black communities. Traditional remedies for inequality such as pouring more resources into disadvantage spaces have by and large been “based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the empirical data,” according to author Junia Howell.

For her study, Dr. Howell used data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the world’s longest-running household survey. She found that children who grew up in more disadvantaged neighborhoods complete less education than their peers who grew up in more affluent communities. However, she found that this relationship has little to do with disadvantaged areas. Instead, the correlation is due to the compounding privileges in advantaged neighborhoods.

Using statistical modeling, Dr. 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.

In order to combat this inequality, Dr. Howell believes that increasing resources in Black and Latinx communities is only one part of the solution. She also stresses that the research and public policies need to address how opportunities for success are hoarded in privileged spaces, allowing advantaged, predominantly White communities to thrive.

“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,” said Dr. Howell. “Without addressing the larger issue of why resources are disproportionately allocated to White communities, we will fail to shrink educational inequities.”

The full study, “The Truly Advantaged: Examining the Effects of Privileged Places on Educational Attainment,” was published in The Sociological Quarterly. It may be accessed here.


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