How does geography limit your access to opportunities and what can be done to change that reality?

Lesson Learned

Intergenerational urban poverty is intrinsically linked to place, and more precisely, to neighborhoods. We have learned that poverty is effectively an inheritable attribute transmitted via ZIP Code.

Distressed urban neighborhoods were engineered into existence by mal-intended public policy and private actions that were explicitly designed to segregate our cities and concentrate poverty into targeted neighborhoods.

In a 1993 New York Times opinion piece, Rutgers University criminologist Todd Clear pointed out that 70 percent of the New York State prison population came from eight neighborhoods in New York City. That just a handful of places in New York City could be responsible for producing the bulk of the state’s convicted criminals was both a shock and a revelation to Tom Cousins, and he thought perhaps it was the geographic dimension of this problem that needed to be addressed. Armed with this knowledge, Cousins set out to transform the struggling East Lake neighborhood in Atlanta, and the seed for the development of Purpose Built Communities was planted.

In America, neighborhoods determine destiny. Research shows that place shapes life outcomes, but it’s not enough to improve only a single aspect of a struggling neighborhood. To achieve racial equity, improved health outcomes, and greater economic mobility in neighborhoods that have suffered from decades of disinvestment, it takes a holistic approach.

What’s Your Zip Code?
Where Do You Live?
What’s Your Neighborhood?

"If I know the answer to any of those questions, I can tell you a lot about your life without even meeting you. I can tell you a lot about your life right now. And more disturbingly, I can tell you a lot about your life ten years from now."

- Othello Meadows III
Executive Director of Seventy-Five North


In his book, Stuck in Place, Patrick Sharkey notes that “living in poor neighborhoods over two consecutive generations reduces children’s cognitive skills by roughly eight or nine points…roughly equivalent to missing two to four years of schooling.” Using longitudinal data over several decades, he discovered that when neighborhoods improve, “the economic fortunes of black youth improve and improve rather substantially.”


Low-income children that are simply born into healthy neighborhoods actually perform better. If one compares how low-income children in high-poverty schools perform relative to low-income children in low-poverty schools, you see material differences in outcomes. Data from two Atlanta elementary schools show highly divergent literacy scores for low-income students. In other words, simply being from a low-income household is not determinative of school performance.

Map any disconcerting outcome – life expectancy, crime rate, third grade test scores – and you will find that they are both highly correlated with each other as well as being highly correlated with place. The science suggests that living in poverty is a problem, but living in impoverished places is an even bigger problem.

In recent years there have been several major advances in our understanding of a connection between health outcomes and place.

There has been a gradual recognition within the health care industry that health outcomes could not be improved exclusively through improved access to health care services. Instead, sustainable improvements in health outcomes could only be delivered by addressing what has become known as the “social determinants of health,” generally defined as the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age.

Harvard professor Robert J. Sampson – based on his groundbreaking work in Chicago – demonstrated the connection between health outcomes and neighborhood conditions and pointed out that “attempts to change places and social environments rather than people” may deliver better results in the fight against poverty. Thanks to this and other studies, we have a much deeper understanding of the connection between place and economic success in life. This data provides additional support for the thesis that place needs to be central to any strategy for eradicating poverty.


The information for this Lesson Learned is included in POVERTY AND PLACE: A Review of the Science and Research That Have Impacted Our Work, a white paper that offers an overview of selected research that has informed our thinking as we continue to fight against intergenerational urban poverty.