Neighborhoods

The neighborhood environment plays a central role in shaping families’ well-being, their social networks and supports, and their children’s chances to thrive and succeed. Further, a feeling of belonging in one’s community and social circles, feeling safe and trusting of one’s neighbors, and having equitable access to local resources are all key aspects of a safe and inclusive community.

To see more information on the predictors related to neighborhoods that the Working Group considered, as well as references for the research described on this page, see the section “Boosting Upward Mobility: A Supporting Framework” in the report.

PREDICTORS

Economic inclusion and Racial Diversity

Limited levels of both economic inclusion and racial diversity curtail families’ choices about where to live, block access to neighborhoods with better opportunities, and create areas of concentrated poverty and distress. Segregation also perpetuates exclusion and prevents people of different classes, races, and ethnicities from building the social ties that foster mutual respect, dignity, and belonging. Economically segregated areas of concentrated poverty are associated with an increase in teenage pregnancy, male joblessness, single motherhood, and high school dropout. An increase in economic segregation exacerbates differences in educational attainment between high- and low-income children. Racial and economic segregation can negatively affect people at all stages of the life course and impact the belonging and economic dimensions of mobility from poverty.

Economic Inclusion Metric: Share of residents experiencing poverty living in high-poverty neighborhoods.

This metric measures the share of a jurisdiction’s residents experiencing poverty who live in high-poverty neighborhoods (measured by census tract). A high-poverty neighborhood is one in which over 40 percent of the residents are experiencing poverty.

Validity: Measures of poverty concentration have been widely used to measure the extent and severity of economic exclusion and isolation. The more concentrated and separate people in poverty are from better-resourced neighbors, the more isolated they are from the larger community and the social and economic resources and opportunities it can provide.

Availability: Data required to compute poverty concentration are available from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS).

Frequency: New data for the metric are available annually.

Geography: This metric can be computed for all cities and counties nationwide. For less populated areas, several years of data may need to be pooled. Because this metric reflects the structural conditions facing a city or county’s residents, changes in the metric possibly caused by people moving into or out of a jurisdiction do represent changes to those structural conditions.

Consistency: Poverty concentration can be consistently defined and calculated across all cities and counties over time.

Subgroups: The metric can be disaggregated by race or ethnicity, gender, and other demographic factors. For less populated areas and for certain demographic groups, several years of data may need to be pooled to obtain reliable estimates.

Limitations: This metric can be sensitive to the overall poverty rate of a city or county. Therefore, changes in poverty concentrations need to be assessed with reference to the city or county’s overall poverty rate.

Racial Diversity Metric: Neighborhood exposure index, or the share of a person’s neighbors who are people of other races and ethnicities.

This metric is constructed separately for each racial or ethnic group and reports the average share of that group’s neighbors who are members of other racial or ethnic groups. For example, the exposure index would report the share of people who are Black and Latinx in the census tract of the average white person, the share of people who are white and Latinx in the census tract of the average Black person, and the share of people who are Black and white in the census tract of the average Latinx person. Higher values of the index indicate more neighborhood diversity and more day-to-day exposure of people to neighbors of different races and ethnicities.

Validity: The exposure index is one of several widely used measures of residential segregation or inclusion. It effectively captures the multiracial or multiethnic diversity of American communities, it reflects the experience of individuals of all races and ethnicities, and it provides a comprehensive picture of neighborhood racial and ethnic composition.

Availability: Data required to compute neighborhood exposure indexes are available from the ACS.

Frequency: New data for the metric are available annually.

Geography: The data are available for cities and counties, but also at the neighborhood level. Because this metric reflects the structural conditions facing a jurisdiction’s residents, changes in the metric that may be caused by people moving into or out of a jurisdiction represent changes to those structural conditions.

Consistency: Exposure indexes can be consistently defined and calculated for all jurisdictions over time.

Subgroups: This metric is by definition disaggregated by race or ethnicity.

Limitations: This measure can be sensitive to the overall racial or ethnic composition of a city or county. Therefore, changes in exposure indexes need to be assessed with reference to the city or county’s overall racial or ethnic composition. Further, although this index can be constructed annually, appreciable changes may take many years to observe.

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Belongingness

Belongingness reflects a person’s sense that they are valued within a group. Research shows that a sense of belonging is associated with improved physical and mental health outcomes and reduced emotional distress, suicide, mental illness, and depression. A sense of belonging in school contributes to positive academic outcomes; low absenteeism; higher completion rates; positive attitudes toward learning; higher academic self-efficacy; and reductions in disruptive behavior, emotional distress, and other risky behaviors.

Metric: Inclusion of Other in the Self scale

This metric is a single-item question that measures how connected the respondent feels with another person or group (e.g., family, neighborhood, school, or community organization). Respondents see seven pairs of circles that range from just touching to almost completely overlapping, with one circle in each pair identified as “self” and the second circle identified as “other.” Respondents must answer the question, “Which picture best describes your relationship with [this person/group]?” The researcher identifies what the person or group for the “other” is being represented. The question takes less than one minute to administer. See the report for additional details.

Validity: Researchers have used the scale to measure belonging with various populations, including 5-year-olds, teens, adults, people with low incomes, and formerly incarcerated people. In the example of formerly incarcerated people, those who felt more belonging in their communities experienced greater residential stability and community readjustment and lower rates of recidivism than less connected formerly incarcerated people. This survey is easily understood by respondents.

Availability: This information is not available widely enough in existing data sources to provide coverage at the local level across many geographies.

Frequency: The frequency of how often data for the metric would be collected would depend upon local data collection efforts, but we recommend regular follow-up data collection at least every two years.

Geography: The level of geography that the metric would represent (e.g., county, city, or zip code) would depend on the sampling frame, stratification, and the number of people ultimately surveyed to obtain sufficient power for the survey.

Consistency: The degree of consistency in this metric across different places will vary with the extensiveness of the survey design and number of people surveyed in each place. Ideally, the metric could be consistent across some base level of geography (such as the city or county), but some places would likely have more extensive coverage of residents who have taken the survey. The selection of the “other” should be used consistently at the local level within age groups.

Subgroups: Like geography, the range of subgroups represented and the ability to compare subgroups (e.g., people of color and white people; married and single people; people with children and those without) would depend on the sampling frame, stratification, and the number of people surveyed.

Limitations: The primary limitation is that these data will need to be collected directly by communities. Communities will need to identify through which vehicles data can be gathered. Original data collection may also make benchmarking against other places challenging, depending on the scale and representativeness of data collection in other places. Further, this metric can be sensitive to residential mobility if the same people cannot be followed over time.

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Transportation Access

Without adequate transportation access, families can struggle to accomplish daily activities and be forced to trade expensive commutes for other needs and goods. Limited transportation access can also restrict opportunities for work and education. Evidence suggests that living in proximity to a bus or subway stop or having frequent transit services is associated with lower levels of unemployment, limited access to public transit is associated with higher levels of unemployment, and greater access to public transit reduces the likelihood of a household being on public assistance. Evidence indicates that living in neighborhoods far from jobs and without affordable transportation options undermines employment and economic success.

Metric: Transit trips index

This metric reflects the number of public transit trips taken annually at the census tract by a three-person single-parent family with income at 50 percent of the area median income for renters. This number is percentile ranked nationally into an index with values ranging from 0 to 100 for each census tract. Higher scores reflect better access to public transportation.

Validity: This metric was designed in partnership with the US Department of Transportation and has been used by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development in community efforts to affirmatively further fair housing. Several scholars have also used this metric and data in peer-reviewed journals. Although other arrangements of family composition, income, and housing status are possible in constructing this index and are available in the data, these characteristics were intended to more closely characterize a lower-income household in the community and are the most validated of other household combinations.

Availability: The estimates come from the location affordability index, which is publicly available.

Frequency: The location affordability index data are updated every three years.

Geography: This metric can be measured at the census tract or neighborhood level. Values can be averaged at higher levels of geography. For example, one can calculate a population-weighted average value among all census tracts in a county to determine a county-level value.

Consistency: This metric can be calculated the same way over time.

Subgroups: This metric is based on a lower-income population, notably single-parent families earning half the local area median income among renters. This metric can also be disaggregated by subarea when used in combination with the ACS to identify the racial or ethnic composition of neighborhoods (census tracts) with different levels of access. We distinguish census tracts that are majority nonwhite, that have no majority race or ethnicity, and that are majority non-Hispanic white. We define a majority as at least 60 percent of residents. 

Limitations: This metric cannot alone capture the concept of transportation access. This must be used in partnership with the low transportation cost index to cover geographies that may not have an extensive public transportation system, such as rural areas.

Metric: Low transportation cost index

This index reflects local transportation costs as a share of renters’ incomes. It accounts for both transit and cars. This index is based on estimates of transportation costs for a three-person, single-parent family with income at 50 percent of the median income for renters for the region (i.e., a core-based statistical area). Although other arrangements of family composition, income, and housing status are possible in constructing this index, these characteristics were intended to more closely characterize a lower-income household in the community. Values are inverted and percentile ranked nationally, with values ranging from 0 to 100. The higher the value, the lower the cost of transportation in that neighborhood.

Validity: This metric was designed in partnership with the US Department of Transportation and has been used by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development in community efforts to affirmatively further fair housing. Several scholars have also used this metric and data in peer-reviewed journals.

Availability: The estimates come from the location affordability index, which are publicly available.

Frequency: The location affordability index data are updated every three years.

Geography: This metric can be measured at the census tract or neighborhood level. Values can be averaged at higher levels of geography. For example, one can calculate a population-weighted average value among all census tracts in a county to determine a county-level value.

Consistency: This metric can be calculated the same way over time.

Subgroups: This metric is based on a lower-income population, notably single-parent families earning half the local area median income among renters. This metric can also be disaggregated by subarea when used in combination with the ACS to identify the racial or ethnic composition of neighborhoods (census tracts) with different levels of access. We distinguish census tracts that are majority nonwhite, that have no majority race or ethnicity, and that are majority non-Hispanic white. We define a majority as at least 60 percent of residents. 

Limitations: Transportation costs may be low for a variety of reasons, including greater access to public transportation and the density of homes, services, and jobs in the neighborhood and surrounding community. It is important consider this metric not by itself but rather in combination with the transit trips index to more fully measure the concept of transportation access.

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Environmental Quality

Living in communities with poor environmental quality—including hazardous wastes and other toxins, ambient and indoor air pollutants, poor water quality, and high levels of ambient noise—can place people at higher risk of health complications that impose costs and may undermine school or work performance. Exposure to hazardous environmental conditions can have negative implications for the health of residents, especially those who are more susceptible to health problems, such as children and elderly people.

Metric: Air quality index

The air quality index is an index that summarizes potential exposure to harmful toxins at a neighborhood level. The index is a linear combination of standardized Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates of carcinogenic, respiratory, and neurological hazards in the air measured at the census-tract level. Values are inverted and then percentile ranked nationally and range from 0 to 100. The higher the index value, the less exposure to toxins harmful to human health. The index tells how clean or polluted the air is and what associated health effects might be a concern in the community. The air quality index includes five major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone, particle pollution (also known as particulate matter), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.

Validity: EPA scientists and researchers link levels of air pollutants to health effects that can manifest within a few hours or days after breathing polluted air. For each of the pollutants, the EPA has established national air quality standards to protect public health.

Consistency: Levels of air pollutants can be consistently measured over time and space.

Availability: Air quality systems data are produced by the EPA and are publicly available.

Frequency: Air quality information from the National Air Toxics Assessment data were updated every three years since 1996, but the most recent update was in 2014.

Geography: This metric is available at the neighborhood (census tract) level. Values can be averaged at higher levels of geography. For example, one can calculate a population-weighted average value among all census tracts in a county to determine a county-level value.

Subgroups: This metric can be disaggregated by subarea when used in combination with the ACS to identify the racial or ethnic composition of neighborhoods (census tracts) with different levels of air quality. We distinguish census tracts that are majority nonwhite, that have no majority race or ethnicity, and that are majority non-Hispanic white. We define a majority as at least 60 percent of residents.

Limitations: Data are not updated with enough frequency. Other data sources can offer information annually or daily, but they are at higher levels of geography and could not be disaggregated by subgroup.

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Social Capital

Social capital measures the resources provided by social networks, including day-to-day supports provided by close relations as well as access to information and broader resources provided by extended relationships. Research demonstrates a positive relationship between social capital and education, child well-being, lower crime rates, health, tolerance, happiness, and economic and civic equality.

Metric: Selected questions from the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey

These questions measure the resources provided by a person’s social networks, including both close relations and extended relations, and our metric uses a few items from this survey. The questions offer information on the relative strengths and areas for improvement in communities' civic behavior. The metric for social capital is a selection of seven questions from the Social Capital Benchmark Survey covering participation in community organizations, religious attendance, number and racial diversity of friends, engagement with neighborhoods, and the ability to find information on new jobs. These questions provide indicators of generalized social capital, bonding social capital, bridging social capital, and racial diversity of friends at the individual level. See the report for additional details. No widely available data on social capital exist at the local level, so this metric would require new data collection.

Validity: Measures of social capital have repeatedly been shown to be associated with individual and community well-being and upward mobility. However, no standard measure or set of measures exist to capture the relationship between social capital and mobility. Though the survey and larger blocks of questions from the survey have been used in peer-reviewed studies before, the subset of questions for this metric has not yet been validated together. We anticipate using the initial round of data collection to validate this metric for widespread use and to refine and revise as necessary.

Availability: This information is not available widely enough in existing data sources to provide coverage at the local level across many geographies. To ease data collection, we have attempted to minimize the number of questions needed to measure each of the indicators of social capital (e.g., generalized social capital and bridging and bonding social capital).

Frequency: The frequency of how often data for the metric would be collected would depend upon local data collection efforts, but we recommend regular follow-up data collection at least every two years.

Geography: The level of geography that the metric would represent (e.g., county, city, or zip code) would depend on the sampling frame, stratification, and the number of people ultimately surveyed to obtain sufficient power for the survey.

Consistency: The degree of consistency in this metric across different places will vary with the extensiveness of the survey design and number of people surveyed in each place. Ideally, the metric would be consistent across some base level of geography (such as the city or county), but some places would likely have more extensive coverage of residents who have taken the survey.

Subgroups: Like geography, the range of subgroups represented and the ability to compare subgroups (people of color and white people; married and single people; people with children and those without) would depend on the sampling frame, stratification, and the number of people surveyed.

Limitations: The primary limitation is that these data will need to be collected by communities. Additional limitations include the need to further validate this particular set of questions. Original data collection may also make benchmarking against other places challenging depending on the scale and representativeness of data collection in other places.

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