by Hwa Young Kim and Andrew Walton

Image by Ilona S from Pixabay

Something as arbitrary as which neighbourhood we live in should not determine our future. However, residential segregation between people who are rich or poor and people who are black or white is highly pervasive and highly correlated with socio-economic inequality. Neighbourhoods that are disadvantaged face notably worse prospects in terms of economic opportunities, public services, and local amenities. To make this image starker, many people who are disadvantaged live in areas of concentrated poverty, with high rates of violence, street crime, and unemployment. Surely, this situation is unjust and requires action.

But what action? Some argue for providing those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods subsidies to move to wealthier locations. Others have called for greater redistribution of wealth from rich neighbourhoods to those communities who have less than they should. In a recent article, we argue that there is potential to another, less conventional, route: reducing residential segregation through those who are advantaged relocating to disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Our reasoning is that integration has a beneficial role in reducing the prejudice that sustains inequality. What’s more, we think this can occur without crossing a line into a problematic form of gentrification.

Before we make our case, let’s start with our worries about other approaches to residential integration. Moving disadvantaged families to wealthier neighbourhoods asks those who suffer injustice to shoulder the burdens of moving home. It asks them to leave family and friends who may provide vital connection and support. It asks them to assimilate to the cultural norms of the advantaged neighbourhood to avoid stigma or even abuse. Finally, it expresses a problematic message about the cultural environment of disadvantaged neighbourhoods – it seems to say that only by leaving those neighbourhoods will people succeed. Even if greater economic prospects are much more likely for those who move, the moral costs of pursuing integration in this way are high.

This suggests a straightforward case for redistribution. Wealthier neighbourhoods are unjustly advantaged and greater redistribution can make neighbourhoods more equal without placing any burdens on the disadvantaged. However, there is a catch: correcting inequalities is not as simple as pushing a button. Redistribution requires political action, and this relies on the public’s support, particularly in terms of how they vote. The difficulty is that residential segregation poses a major obstacle to policies that would help correct injustice.

The crucial nexus here concerns findings on an important relationship between segregation and prejudice. In general, people form prejudices about in-groups and out-groups, and this affects how they treat members of each. One factor that plays a role in prejudice formation is geographical space. When people who share socially salient characteristics, such as race and class, live in separated locations, there is a sharper sense that those who live nearby are the in-group. And people tend towards feelings and political action that neglect the injustices suffered by those who live further away.

So, it’s complicated. Segregation connects to prejudice and prejudice has a role maintaining inequality, but commonly proposed paths towards integration place problematic burdens on those who are already disadvantaged. This leads us to an alternative possibility: might it work better for some of those who are advantaged to move to disadvantaged neighbourhoods? This looks like an avenue that will garner the benefits of tackling spatial segregation to reduce prejudice in the battle against inequality without asking those who suffer disadvantage to leave their networks and cultural environment.

At this point, we suspect alarms might be ringing. An obvious reaction to this proposal is that this looks like another politically salient issue, namely gentrification, which is commonly criticised for displacing disadvantaged individuals from their homes and communities.

Our response here is: this is also complicated. The term gentrification is used frequently now, perhaps almost any time that a new apartment block appears or there is a new café that sells avocado toast. We all know neighbourhoods that have changed dramatically along these lines over the past 25 years. But the general phenomenon of advantaged individuals moving to disadvantaged neighbourhoods is notably more complex. Importantly for our purposes, there is growing evidence that many instances in which this occurs do not increase the out-migration of long-term residents or amenities. In fact, the instances where gentrification of such a kind occurs are surprisingly few.

Does this mean we think encouraging those who are advantaged to relocate to disadvantaged areas is a risk-free panacea for inequality? No. We should always be cautious thinking like this and our support for such processes is no different. We agree that problematic forms of gentrification are problematic, and it is important to manage relocation in a way that is careful to avoid them. Like many others, we also believe an essential tool to prevent problematic forms of gentrification is significant investment in public housing, which has been notably lacking in recent decades. Finally, we think that tackling inequality will likely involve an array of policies working in a mutually supportive fashion. However, we do think that residential integration that treads a careful line between reducing prejudice, distributing burdens fairly, and respecting the neighbourhoods of those who are disadvantaged is one option worthy of more attention.

Andrew Walton is Senior Lecturer in Political Philosophy in the Politics Department at Newcastle University. His research centres on questions of economic ethics and justice in housing policy.