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Can housing policies affect assimilation of the children of migrants?

By Chris A Garrington, on 17 February 2022

by Fran Abrams

Immigrant families often choose to live in neighbourhoods where there are others from similar backgrounds. But does this affect their children’s prospects? New research using the ONS- LS suggests policies aimed at desegregating neighbourhoods could make a difference. 

Many immigrant children grow up in segregated ethnic enclaves, which raises a question: Does this have an impact on their cultural assimilation, and if so, how? 

There is a difficulty in answering this question. New migrant parents who choose to live outside of such enclaves may be different from those who choose to live in ethnic areas. They may be better educated and may have a wider variety of different contacts. Maybe their language skills are better and that might open up a range of opportunities for them. But we don’t know which of those who do live in ethnic enclaves also have these skills.

Hard to unpick

So it’s hard to unpick what comes from children’s environment, rather than directly from their parents. It’s a complex picture. 

But using data from the Census for England and Wales alongside information from the Fourth National Survey of Ethnic Minorities, which tells us about first-generation immigrants’ cultural preferences and their neighbourhood choices, new research has come up with some answers.

The researcher, Yujung Hwang, used information on families with South Asian origins living in England and Wales, and asked if the area where they grew up made a difference to their children’s prospects later on. She was able to produce a picture of the outcomes of offspring from Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi families in Census 2011.

She asked if living in an ethnic enclave influenced whether these second generation migrants remained in a similar area, whether they kept the South Asian religion of their parents and whether they married someone from the same religion or ethnicity. For women, she looked at whether neighbourhood was linked to success in education and in work.

While some of those factors did not seem to be affected, she found, some of were significantly altered by neighbourhood effects.

Overall, the outcomes which showed the strongest effect were the likelihood of continuing to live in an ethnic enclave: those who grew up in such an area were 44 percentage points  more likely to continue living in one as adults.  Women who grew up in those areas were also less likely to graduate from college and less likely to go to work. 

Cohort differences

There were differences between the two age cohorts, though. Those born in the 1970s were 22 percentage points more likely to live in an ethnic enclave if they grew up in one. For women in that age group growing up in an enclave meant a 25 percentage point lower employment rate and a 29 percentage point lower rate of college graduation.

For those born in the 1980s, the only significant neighbourhood effect was on residency – the likelihood of staying in such an area was 55 percentage points higher for this group, though that could be at least partly because they were still unmarried and living with parents in 2011.

Once parental characteristics such as education, ethnicity, religion, employment status during childhood, and years since arrival were taken into account, there was no significant neighbourhood effect on the intergenerational transmission of religion or marriage preference.

This, the author suggested, could be explained by the fact that second-generation migrants were highly likely to remain and to marry within their parents’ religion and ethnic group, regardless of where they lived: there was no neighbourhood effect because both groups tended to conform to the ethnic and religious norm.

The results of the study point to possible policy implications: measures which support the ethnic desegregation of neighbourhoods could lead to the wider cultural assimilation of immigrant groups.

For instance, building social housing in diverse neighbourhoods could support the children of migrants in their educational and employment journeys.

Neighbourhood Effects on Intergenerational Cultural Transmission is a working paper by Yujung Hwang.

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