Youth in Mixed-Income Communities: Context, Dynamics and Response
Concerns about the negative effects of growing up in poor neighborhoods have generated important debate on appropriate policy responses to urban poverty, leading to a current focus focus on poverty deconcentration. Relocation to “better” neighborhoods is meant to remove youth from negative influences, provide a safer and healthier built environment, and better connect youth to positive relationships, resources, and opportunities. Neighborhood influence is not unidirectional, however; neighborhood residents contribute to the nature of neighborhood life and the dynamics that influence young people’s experiences in reciprocal ways. This paper explores these dynamics in three mixed-income communities in Chicago that have been built on footprint of large public housing complexes. It examines the perceptions and expectations that residents, policymakers, and development practitioners have for youth development among public housing youth relocating, interrogates the roles and experiences of young people and their contributions to community dynamics, and analyzes their influence on promoting positive neighborhood effects for youth.
The analysis is based on in-depth interviews, focus groups, field observations, and documentary data concerning three mixed-income developments that are being built in place of public housing complexes in Chicago. A total of 274 interviews were conducted over three waves of data collection, including panels of both residents (randomly sampled across income groups) and key informants involved in the developments. Interviews (recorded and fully transcribed) and field notes were coded for analysis using the NVivo qualitative data analysis software program.
The mixed-income communities to which public housing youth have moved provide some clear benefits, including new housing, safer neighborhoods, and better amenities. However, the overall experience for youth in these new environments is not altogether positive and is proving to be problematic for the broader community. Families at different income levels employ different parental management strategies that serve as a barrier to engagement and a sense of community. Rather than the socially diverse environment serving as a positive influence in shaping the development of young people, there is limited social interaction and network formation across race and class boundaries. Rather than helping to bridge relationships among households of different income levels, the presence of youth often promotes distance and avoidance. The strained tenor of relations across income levels, and the uncourteous demeanor of many youth, lead neighbors to be unwilling to intervene informally to promote common social norms and collective efficacy. Institutional resources to promote positive youth recreation and enrichment are sorely lacking, and routine youth activities are viewed by many higher-income residents as encroaching on and detracting from the value of shared public property and space.
Conclusions and Implications
These findings suggest the need for development-level attention by responsible actors such as property managers, service providers, and resident leaders to develop more constructive ways of engaging youth and families and more inclusive approaches to using and monitoring public space. Broader issues of quality schooling, employment opportunities for youth, and constructive out-of-school-time activities also need to be addressed.