Exploring the Great American City

Provost David Harris, Dean Nancy Wilson, CIRCLE director Peter Levine, and Robert Sampson

What shapes the character of a neighborhood? What determines whether an area has high poverty or is affluent? Can deliberate action by nonprofit groups and active citizens affect the character of a neighborhood and the welfare of its residents?

These are among the questions recently explored by Tisch College’s Faculty Fellows. In a public session which attracted sociologists, child development experts, political scientists and other Tufts faculty, the group considered how to connect disparate data to reveal a deeper picture.

The group was joined by Robert Sampson, Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and author of the recent book Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. Through over a decade of detailed research on Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods, Sampson found that individuals have better outcomes if they live in neighborhoods where residents tend to act on social problems and where nonprofit organizations are strong and well connected. Interventions designed to strengthen the civic infrastructure of neighborhoods could therefore be a key to combating concentrated poverty.

“When I was a graduate student, Chicago was the greatest place to be studying issues of poverty and inequality, in part because of a Northwestern/University of Chicago partnership that exposed us to the work of great scholars like Rob Sampson,” said Provost David Harris, who holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Northwestern University, in his introductory remarks.  “As sociologists, we’ve historically looked at three types of data – individual level data from surveys, aggregate data such as the census, and ethnographic data. But now there’s a new approach – using a broad range of data to understand individuals and how they interact with the environment. By looking through all these layers and levels, we start to understand the more complex issues.”

Sampson agreed, adding that how data is conceptualized has an impact on the stories it tells.

“How cities work is embedded in data collection,” said Sampson. “Cities are mosaics. They have distinct and diverse neighborhoods. Levels of crime, infant mortality, and even IQ, vary greatly across neighborhoods but are similar within neighborhoods. And these effects persist over time. But if you just look at a slice of the data, you miss the bigger picture – you miss how all that information goes together.”

For 16 years, Sampson has been working on defining that bigger picture, working with a team that has included over 130 researchers to sift through records detailing Chicago’s rates of crime, poverty, health, nonprofit activity, civic leadership, and collective civic action while also conducting unique research to better understand the city.

In an effort Sampson called “seeing the city,” researchers drove down 2200 Chicago street segments recording what they saw and using that data to model life in the city. In another study, Sampson conducted a longitudinal study of 6,200 children and 343 neighborhoods, tracking the outcomes individuals and neighborhoods had over time.

“What we saw were uneven concentrations – with disadvantaged populations in some neighborhoods and affluent populations in others,” Sampson said. “But perhaps more remarkable we found that the neighborhoods with the highest poverty rates in 1960 still had the highest rates in 2000. There’s a similar correlation when you look across diverse social phenomenon at crime and health outcomes, for example. Things stay the same despite change.”

These findings have important implications for policy, Sampson added.

“What can we as a society do about concentrated poverty?” he asked. “Governments efforts have included giving people vouchers to move to different neighborhoods, removing entire communities by tearing down housing projects, developing community-level interventions such as the Harlem Children’s Zone, or creating mixed income housing.”

Sampson’s research has found that efforts to move or displace communities haven’t resulted in less poverty, but only a shift in where poverty is concentrated. However, Sampson concludes, interventions which strengthen the bonds of a community have promise.

In another study, Sampson’s team asked 10,000 Chicagoans if they thought their neighbors would take action in a range of scenarios such as children skipping school or the city shutting down a fire station.

“This survey examined how much people trusted and shared values with their neighbors and how much they thought their neighbors would be willing to help them,” Sampson explained. “We found that collective efficacy, defined as social cohesion among neighbors combined with their willingness to intervene on behalf of the common good, predicts well being. As collective efficacy increases, violence decreases.”

Sampson added that “collective efficacy” often reflects the day to day experience within a neighborhood.

“We went through data going back to the 1970s, and only about 15% of the collective actions we identified were about big, national issues,” Sampson said. “When we talk about collective action, we’re talking about book drives and bake sales – community actions which need a strong organizational infrastructure and which strengthen communities.”

This finding ties into to recent research from Tisch College’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).

“There is an expanding range of research which shows that civic engagement leads to good outcomes for individuals and communities,” said Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE. “We’ve been investigating the relationship between civic health and unemployment and have found that the number of non-profits and the level of social cohesion are the biggest factors in predicting whether a community was able to maintain relatively low levels of unemployment during the recent recession.”

Conducted in partnership with the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) and supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, this research examined more 50 states, 942 metro areas, and more than 3,100 counties. Read more about the Civic Health and Unemployment study.

While this research and analysis is leading to new policy implications and to a more robust understanding how communities work, there is still more work to be to understand these connections.

“The past is embedded in the present,” Sampson concluded, “Change takes time, and the challenge goes on.”