Mindful Inequality: How Opportunity Structures and Skill-Based Neighborhood Sorting by Parents Produce Unequal Environments for Children

Jared Schachner , Harvard University
Robert J. Sampson, Harvard University

Highly skilled parents deploy distinct strategies to cultivate their children’s development, but whether and how parental cognitive skills interact with metropolitan opportunity structures and residential mobility to shape a major domain of inequality in children’s lives—the neighborhood—remains unknown. To examine skill-based neighborhood sorting, we use an original follow-up of the Los Angeles Family and Neighborhood Survey linked to census, GIS, and educational measures. Our discrete choice model of neighborhood selection accounts for heterogeneity among households, incorporates L.A. County's unique spatial structure, and includes a wide range of neighborhood factors. Results suggest parents’ cognitive skills interact with neighborhood affluence to predict neighborhood selection after accounting for, and confirming, the expected influences of race, class, housing availability, and spatial proximity. Moreover, among middle and upper-class parents, cognitive skills predict sorting on school quality, specifically, rather than neighborhood status generally. We thus reveal skill-based contextual sorting as an overlooked driver of urban stratification.

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 Presented in Session 199. Families and Inequality