Why the Lowest Income Families Might Care the Most About Their Neighborhoods

For starters, they have fewer prospects for moving anywhere else.

Image
Reuters

Because of the run-down and sometimes violent nature of poor urban neighborhoods, we often assume that the people who live there don't care that much about where they live. A lot of academic research has gone into trying to understand the connection between perceptions of neighborhood safety and community cohesion, most of it finding that people are less invested in their community the more dangerous they think it is.

An interesting study, published recently in the journal Race and Social Problems, adds a surprising wrinkle to what we know about these places. The researchers, Ronald O. Pitner, ManSoo Yu, and Edna Brown, were trying to assess "levels of community care and vigilance" among 70 black adults, most of them women, living in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods in an unidentified large Midwestern city.

In less academic language, they wanted to know if these people took pride in their neighborhoods, felt a sense of community there, and were willing to look out for their neighbors – and, if so, whether those attitudes were associated with income level, crime rates or neighborhood perception. The researchers surveyed each subject with a mailed questionnaire or telephone interview, and they compared the results with local crime data.

Income levels turned out to be strongest predictor of "community care" and vigilance, but not in the way that the authors suspected. All of these people lived in low-income neighborhoods, but they weren't all equally poor. The residents with the lowest incomes turned out to care the most about their communities (based on agreement with statements like "if I witnessed a crime in my
neighborhood, I would report it").

The study had an admittedly small sample size drawn from only a single city. But the authors raise an interesting theory for this finding that may well apply elsewhere: People with the lowest income are stuck with the communities they have. Their higher-income neighbors have more mobility and may simply be biding their time until they move on. And this has implications for how community workers and officials should try to build the kind of cohesion and social capital in these neighborhoods that would make them feel like safer places to live.

Top image of a police car, seen through a chain-link fence, as it drives through a Chicago neighborhood: Jim Young/Reuters

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.