Population Research and Policy Review 22: 221–249, 2003.
© 2003 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
How long are exposures to poor neighborhoods? The long-term
dynamics of entry and exit from poor neighborhoods
Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Abstract. Although discussions of poor neighborhoods often assume that their residents are a
distinct population trapped in impoverished environments for long durations, no past research
has examined longitudinal patterns of residence in poor neighborhoods beyond single-year
transitions. Using data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics from 1979 to 1990 matched
to census tract data, this paper provides the ﬁrst estimates of duration of stay and rates of
re-entry in poor (20%+ poor) and extremely poor (40%+ poor) census tracts. The results
indicate that (1) there is great racial inequality in longitudinal patterns of exposure to poor
neighborhoods – most African Americans will live in a poor neighborhood over a 10 year
span, contrasted to only 10 percent of whites; (2) exits from high poverty neighborhoods are
not uncommon, but re-entries to poor neighborhoods following an exit are also very common,
especially among African Americans; and (3) length of spell in a poor neighborhood is pos-
itively associated with low income, female headship, and, most of all, black race. Little of
the racial difference is accounted for by racial difference in poverty status or family structure.
Implications for research and public policy are discussed.
Keywords: Duration, ghetto, neighborhood, poverty, underclass
Writers on poor neighborhoods, notably Wilson (1987, 1991, 1996), have
long referred to the residents of such neighborhoods as a population separate
and distinct from mainstream society – the ‘underclass’ or ‘ghetto poor’. In
Wilson’s account, the spatial separation of the residents of poor neighbor-
hoods is a factor that reinforces class barriers, leading to a population with
low levels of social contact with middle-class persons and institutions.
Implicit in the social isolation argument and in most descriptions of poor
neighborhoods is the assumption that their residents rarely enter more pros-
perous neighborhoods. In many accounts, residents of poor neighborhoods
are discussed as an isolated and distinct population, implying low residential
mobility into afﬂuent neighborhoods. Policy discussions reﬂect this concern
in the recent emphasis on housing mobility programs for low-income families
(e.g., Polikoff 1995). Yet almost no research has examined this ‘entrap-
In fact, studies of the determinants of residential mobility
provide reasons to doubt it. Because low-income people tend to be renters,
they tend to move frequently (Morrison 1971; Speare, Goldstein & Frey
1975). If some of these moves are to middle-income or afﬂuent neighbor-