Discussion: Social Change and Systems Thinking
Mixing It Up:
Reframing Neighborhood Socioeconomic Diversity
A FrameWorks MessageMemo
Sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Drew Volmert, PhD, Director of Research
Moira O’Neil, PhD, Director of Research Interpretation and Application
Nat Kendall-Taylor, PhD, Chief Executive Officer
Julie Sweetland, PhD, Vice President for Strategy and Innovation1
©FrameWorks Institute 2016
Table of Contents
………………………………………………………………………………………….Gaps in Understanding 6
……………………………………………………………….A Core Story of Socioeconomic Mixing 13
………………………………………………………………………………………………Putting It Together 40
…………………………………………………………………………About the FrameWorks Institute 43
……………………………………………………………………………………Appendix A: Expert Story 44
Mixing it Up: Reframing Neighborhood Socioeconomic Diversity
In the 1960s, John F. Kennedy defended his economic policies with a now-famous seafaring
metaphor: “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Some two decades later, Ronald Reagan appropriated the
metaphor to build support for the supply-side economics theory that low tax rates spur the
wealthy to invest their capital, which creates jobs and lowers prices on consumer goods and thus
ultimately benefits the middle and working classes. He also used another metaphor—the “trickle-
down” effect—to build support for “Reaganomics.” The evidence shows that as a result of these
conservative economic policies, economic inequality is widening, class segregation is
intensifying, and the effects have far-reaching implications for people across society.
The evidence also shows that when affluent people are geographically isolated, people in lower
economic strata lose out. Wealthier communities with large tax bases fund higher-quality schools
and better health care services—but these investments do not spill over to other, less affluent
communities. In addition, people who live in segregated income groups are less likely to interact
and socialize with people in other income groups. In turn, as sociologists Sean Reardon and
Kendra Bischoff have demonstrated, affluent people who live in isolation have less empathy for
people who struggle economically and are more willing to support policies that
disproportionately punish the poor.2 In addition to these impacts on lower-income people, the
effects of economic segregation reverberate across society and diminish the quality of life for
Advocates for socioeconomic mixing—the comprehensive integration of social groups and
classes in the economic life of a given location—have the research on their side, but they still face
significant communications challenges. FrameWorks researchers found that the American public
is not aware of the harmful effect that economic segregation has on society and has difficulty
thinking about socioeconomic mixing. When they consider the processes that lead to mixed-
income communities, they tend to equate them with “gentrification.” This is a problematic term
because of its associations with the displacement of existing community members, who are, more
often than not, people of color. These dominant understandings obscure the importance and
collective benefits of socioeconomic mixing and the fact that it can be carried out responsibly—
and equitably—in ways that do not marginalize disadvantaged groups.
The first part of this MessageMemo lays out these and other communications challenges in detail.
It shows that the US public views economic segregation as a normal, natural phenomenon; does
not understand its negative impact on individuals, communities, and society as a whole; and has
little information about how policymakers or others can address it responsibly and equitably.
Mixing it Up: Reframing Neighborhood Socioeconomic Diversity 3
The second part of the report offers a framing strategy for building support for the policies that
foster a more sensible, equitable approach to socioeconomic mixing. The strategy involves an
overarching narrative that makes the harms of economic segregation visible, clearly explains the
process of fostering socioeconomic diversity, and foregrounds its shared benefits. FrameWorks
refers to this type of “explanatory narrative” as a core story. A core story provides a shared
communications foundation replete with tested, reliable tools that advocates can use to coalesce
around a common language and craft coordinated messages about socioeconomic diversity.
Both the description of the communications landscape and the prescribed strategy for navigating
to higher ground are based on a Strategic Frame Analysis®, an investigation that combines theory
and methods from different social science disciplines to arrive at reliable, research-based
recommendations for reframing a social issue. Figure 1 describes the base of research that
underlies the recommended narrative.
Mixing it Up: Reframing Neighborhood Socioeconomic Diversity 4
Figure 1: The Research Base
What communications research does a field need to
reframe an issue?
WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH ON ECONOMIC INTEGRATION SAY?
To discern and distill expert consensus on economic integration, FrameWorks conducted
expert interviews in September and October 2015 with nine leading researchers in the
field of economic integration. This data was supplemented by a review of relevant
academic and advocacy literature and was refined during a series of feedback sessions with
leaders in the field.
HOW DOES THE PUBLIC THINK?
To document the cultural models that Americans draw on to make sense of topics like
economic success and mobility, inequality, and residential integration and segregation by
race and class, FrameWorks conducted in-depth interviews with members of the public
and analyzed the resulting transcripts to identify the implicit, shared understandings and
assumptions that structured public opinion. Twenty interviews were conducted in San
Jose, Nashville, St. Paul, and Philadelphia in July and August of 2015.
WHAT FRAMES CAN SHIFT THINKING?
To systematically identify effective ways of talking about socioeconomically diverse
neighborhoods and the policies that create them, FrameWorks researchers developed
alternative messages and tested them with ordinary Americans. Two primary methods
were used to explore, winnow, and refine possible reframes:
• On-the-street interviews involve rapid, face-to-face testing of frame elements for
their ability to prompt productive and robust understandings of a topic. Two sets of
interviews—a total of 85—were conducted in 2015 and 2016.
• A series of experimental surveys, involving a representative sample of 6,000
respondents, were conducted to test the effects of exposure to a variety of frames on
public understanding, attitudes, and support for programs and policies.
All told, more than 6,100 people from across the United States were included in this
Mixing it Up: Reframing Neighborhood Socioeconomic Diversity 5
Gaps in Understanding
Before designing communications on a complex social issue, it is helpful to anticipate how and
why those communications might go awry. A systematic analysis of where public thinking differs
from expert consensus is an incredibly informative tool, as it can point to strategic priorities for
reframing. Bridging the gaps creates a more informed citizenry that is more equipped to
participate productively in public conversations and more likely to work toward solutions.
The American public understands inequality and socioeconomic mixing differently from experts
on the issue. In this section, we enumerate these gaps, which involve different understandings of
the causes, consequences, and policy corollaries of economic segregation. (For a fuller exposition
of the expert view, see Appendix A.)
Why aren’t people economically mobile? Individual effort and “culture” vs.
structures and systems
Public thinking about economic success and mobility is dominated by Individualism, a model
that attributes economic success, struggle, and failure to personal choice and willpower. When
thinking with this model, the public assumes that anyone who has sufficient drive, ambition, self-
discipline, and will can accumulate wealth in this country. By the same reasoning, economic
failure is attributed to poor choices and lack of effort. The public draws on Individualism to
explain why poor urban neighborhoods are, in fact, poor: because the people who live there have
made, and continue to make, bad choices.
A related, but more specific, model that derives from Individualism is a model of Inner City
Pathology. This pattern of thinking blends faulty assumptions about willpower with toxic deficit-
based assumptions about race to yield a distinctive diagnosis of low-income Black urban
communities as places saturated with poor individual choices and “bad values.” In this model,
inner city “ghettos” are assumed to be the locus of a distinctive form of poverty, one that
demonstrates the inferior moral character of poor Black people, who fail to take education
seriously or work hard at legitimate jobs, choices that ensure a continued state of poverty.3
Surrounded by these poor examples and conditions, more and more Black people get “stuck” in
this culture of poverty. Reasoning this way, Americans arrive quickly at fatalistic attitudes about
addressing poverty in urban communities. By assigning responsibility for poverty to individuals,
this pattern also saps public concern for people who live in economically segregated
neighborhoods, as they are assumed to be responsible for the consequences of their own
Mixing it Up: Reframing Neighborhood Socioeconomic Diversity 6
These individualistic modes of thinking contrast starkly with the view of experts, who highlight
the role of institutional racism and legal systems in producing differential levels of mobility and
economic inequality in the United States. Experts stress institutionalized racism in our legal and
economic systems, explaining how structural conditions and policies marginalize low-income
Black people and have resulted in concentrated areas of urban poverty. For experts, economic
and racial disparities are not the exclusive product of differences in individuals’ drive, character,
or values, but rather are primarily driven by systemic and structural factors. Experts and the
public thus hold fundamentally different top-of-mind understandings about economic
inequality, particularly where agency and power are located.
However, there is evidence that this wide gap can be bridged, or perhaps circumnavigated. While
public thinking is dominated by individualistic models, there are more ecological ways of
thinking that are available and that people can use to think about economic inequality. These
more ecological ways of thinking are thin and recessive—that is, people are unlikely to
spontaneously draw on these models but can and will if prompted to do so.
The first of these more ecological ways of thinking is the Place Matters model. When thinking
with this model, Americans can easily appreciate that physical surroundings shape economic
prospects, as some communities have greater access to resources than others. In particular, the
public understands that children who grow up in affluent communities have opportunities and
advantages that are absent for children in lower-class communities.
Another ecological cultural model involves a view of the economy as a system that is unfairly
biased in favor of upper-income people—what might be called the System is Rigged model. When
drawing upon this way of thinking, people are open to seeing that inequality and lack of
economic mobility are the result of a system that makes it easier for some to get ahead than
others. Yet, as a recessive model, System Is Rigged thinking lacks depth and detail. People find it
difficult to offer examples that demonstrate exactly how the system is set up to produce unequal
These more ecological ways of thinking—the Place Matters and the System Is Rigged models—
generally align with experts’ focus on systems, structures, and the role of place in shaping
outcomes, and thus provide a useful starting point for communications. They do have
limitations. People tend to apply the Place Matters model primarily to children, and they have a
narrow understanding of the mechanisms by which environments shape economic outcomes. In
addition, the System Is Rigged model can lead to a powerful sense of fatalism—that nothing can
be done to fix systems, and therefore poverty and economic inequality are largely insolvable
problems. Communicators must be careful to counter this fatalistic part of the model by
providing clear explanations of how policies can work to reduce economic inequality and
Mixing it Up: Reframing Neighborhood Socioeconomic Diversity 7
improve outcomes. Despite these limitations, expanding upon these more productive recessive
models is the key to overcoming gaps in understanding around the sources of economic
inequality and immobility.
Why is there economic segregation? Natural order of things vs. product of
One of the most troubling findings from our research is that the American public sees inequality
and economic segregation as an unchangeable status quo. This conclusion results from a set of
interrelated assumptions. The public often understands economic inequality as a normal,
expected, and perhaps even desirable aspect of a free market economy. Differential access to
goods and services is a defining characteristic of the economic system, and is thus immutable.
We call this the Natural Order model. A related model focuses on the “natural” state of
individual choices, a Consumerism model that involves assumptions about voluntary, personal
choices about how to allocate individual resources. In this model, economic and racial
segregation are not imposed but freely chosen. The public assumes that residential patterns are
driven by two factors in consumer behavior: what people can afford and what people “like.”
People naturally choose the “best neighborhood they can afford,” which leads to economic
sorting. And, according to this line of thinking, people also want to live near people who are like
themselves. In other words, people choose to cluster with other people of their own class and race.
Both the Natural Order and the Consumerism cultural models obscure the role of policy in
producing economic and racial segregation in the United States.
Contrary to public assumptions, experts argue that economic and racial segregation are the result
of policies instituted at federal, state, and local levels. These policies shape systems that segregate
people by residence and income and, in turn, predetermine economic mobility. These
perspectives are decidedly difficult for the public to consider when their thinking is shaped by the
Natural Order and Free Choice models.
What is socioeconomic mixing? Cognitive hole vs. key concept
The idea of encouraging socioeconomically mixed neighborhoods is largely absent from public
thinking: It is a “cognitive hole” which, empty of a robust concept, is filled in with miscellaneous
detritus of discourse. In this case, the public relies on its awareness of different ways that
socioeconomic mixing has happened in America, though they are unlikely to consider
socioeconomic diversity as the end goal of these routes. These include gentrification, or the
movement of higher- and middle-income people into low-income neighborhoods, and affordable
housing programs, or policies that enable low-income people to move into more affluent areas.
Both routes are, in the public mind, fraught with negative associations. People equate
Mixing it Up: Reframing Neighborhood Socioeconomic Diversity 8
“gentrification” with the disruption of low-income communities and the displacement of their
former residents. In the public definition of gentrification, affluent people are the “winners” and
low-income people are the “losers.” On the other hand, they assume that affordable housing
programs only benefit the low-income residents who are eligible for spots in price-controlled
developments or who receive other forms of subsidies. People reason that the surrounding,
presumably affluent, neighborhood is negatively impacted, expressing worries that the influx of
low-income residents lowers the quality of life and creates social conflict. While there are
important differences between these two routes to economically diverse neighborhoods, there is a
common thread in the way Americans think about them: In neither case are mixed
neighborhoods understood to be a worthy goal in their own right. People recognize that
segregation exists along socioeconomic lines but don’t consider it a problem. The problem
emerges only when market pressures or public policy try to change pre-existing residential
Again, on this point, there are important differences in thinking between the public and experts.
Experts argue that socioeconomic mixing—comprehensive integration of economic life in a
given location across socioeconomic class—is critical for ensuring widespread economic
opportunity and mobility. For the public, this concept is almost wholly foreign.4 Experts stress
that, if handled with the right policies, the movement of affluent residents into low-income
communities need not lead to displacement and, in fact, can produce desirable social, civic, and
economic shifts that benefit everyone. The public, however, might not know much about policies
that move rich and poor closer together, but based on their associations with gentrification and
affordable housing programs, assumes that such efforts won’t go well.
To bridge this gap, advocates for socioeconomic mixing must find ways to build understanding
of what they mean by socioeconomic mixing. A communications strategy should foreground the
explanation of socioeconomically mixed communities as places where people of different wealth
and income levels interact regularly in everyday life, as they work, study, worship, shop, and play
in common spaces.
What are the potential impacts of socioeconomic mixing? Separate fates vs.
Because of the way the public thinks—and doesn’t think—about socioeconomic diversity in
residential areas, many of the possible benefits of socioeconomic mixing are obscured. The public
can point to specific groups that stand to gain in certain scenarios, but they are more apt to
reason from a Separate Fates model that holds that the circumstances, experiences, and
trajectories of the “haves” and “have-nots” are distinct and disconnected. What affects one group
is of little consequence to the other, in this pattern of thinking.
Mixing it Up: Reframing Neighborhood Socioeconomic Diversity 9
FrameWorks researchers pushed ordinary Americans to think about the potential benefits of
socioeconomic mixing—only to find that, even with prompting, the public struggled to
understand why socioeconomic mixing would be valuable across social groups or to society as a
whole. The two benefits that the public could see further illustrated the underlying Separate Fates
modeling of lower- and upper-income groups as culturally distinct, subject to very different
effects from similar experiences. One way that the public thought about the potential benefits of
socioeconomic mixing was Inspiration, or the thinking that regular interaction with affluent
neighbors would motivate poor or working-class people to work harder in order to gain a similar
quality of life. The second benefit of socioeconomic mixing in the public mind, the Spice of Life,
was modeled as accruing to more affluent members of a diverse community. This model involved
the thinking that interactions with people of different backgrounds afforded more interest and
texture to the lifestyles of affluent people.
When reasoning from a Separate Fates model, the public is unlikely to see how the negative
consequences of economic segregation might be felt beyond those isolated neighborhoods. They
are even less likely to consider that more integrated, more equitable arrangements might offer
These patterns of public thinking differ substantially from the views of those who have studied
outcomes associated with socioeconomically diverse residential areas. In the experts’ telling,
socioeconomic mixing both enhances economic mobility for lower-income people and has civic
benefits for the entire community. Experts point out that when lower-income people live near the
affluent, they have greater access to the resources and services that have been built up over time
through the political clout and buying power of the affluent. Socioeconomic mixing increases
economic mobility not through increased motivation but through enhanced access to the
infrastructure that supports economic participation, such as better schools, libraries, parks, retail
options, public safety, and transportation.
Experts further assert that when residential areas include a diverse mix of income levels, there are
shared benefits that accrue to the collective. They note that the civic body of a democracy is
stronger when social cohesion and cooperation are present and that economically mixed
communities are a means of achieving this. Socioeconomic mixing brings opportunities for
engagement and collaboration across class lines, which builds the community cohesion and
cooperation necessary to solve shared problems. Finally, experts point out that the costs of
economic segregation are borne not only by the individuals and families who live in communities
with lacking or low-quality infrastructure but also by society at large, in the form of a weaker
economy and a more fragile, fractious democracy.
Mixing it Up: Reframing Neighborhood Socioeconomic Diversity 10
To bridge this gap, advocates for socioeconomic mixing must find effective ways to explain how
this approach affects mobility (by shifting access to resources and opportunities), and why this
approach is worthy of consideration (because it offers benefits that are quintessentially shared:
namely, stronger communities, a stronger economy, and a stronger society).
What should be done to promote socioeconomic mixing? Nothing vs. changes to
Because the public lacks an understanding of what socioeconomic mixing involves and what
collective benefits might be realized by it, they have little reason to even think about policies to
actively promote socioeconomic mixing, let alone make these policies a priority. Moreover,
FrameWorks research suggests that even if this topic were more salient, the public might still
conclude that policy interventions were inappropriate or impossible. Dominant models of
poverty will invariably shape the public’s thinking about possible solutions to economic
segregation. First, ordinary Americans share an assumption that both the problem and the
solution lie at the level of personal choice: Poverty is caused by poor personal choices or an
individual’s lack of effort and is solved through more self-discipline, better choices, and greater
effort. This Individualism model feeds into Fatalism: The public reasons that poverty is
intractable because human nature is such that some people can’t or won’t change, and therefore,
they remain in perpetual poverty. Together, these cultural models are likely to lead people to
conclude that there are no ways to meaningfully address the existence of poor communities. The
poor shall always be with us—and they have to live somewhere.
The public’s sense that there’s nothing to be done stands in sharp contrast to experts’ call for bold
action. They say that the time is right to place socioeconomic mixing high on the public policy
agenda, and that there are strategic ways to facilitate the conditions for socioeconomic mixing
and structure residential patterns in ways that ensure everyone benefits. They propose a range of
new and specific public policies related to zoning, fair housing, taxes, anchor institutions, job
growth, and other areas. Together, they argue, these policies would promote socioeconomic
mixing, boost upward mobility for lower-income people, and produce socially and economically
vibrant communities that benefit all residents.
Given the distance between public and expert thinking about what’s to be done, it is no surprise
that this topic has been a difficult one to move into the public square and onto the policy agenda.
To bridge the gap on solutions, framing strategies must foster a shared understanding of the
problems, build awareness of how proposed policies would work, and shift attention from
selective benefits to collective benefits.
Figure 2 summarizes the gaps between public and expert thinking about socioeconomic mixing.
Mixing it Up: Reframing Neighborhood Socioeconomic Diversity 11
Mapping the Gaps
Individual Effort and
Product of Policies
Natural Order of
Key Concept Cognitive Hole
Shared Benefits Separate Fates
SOLUTIONSPublic Policy Nothing
Mixing it Up: Reframing Neighborhood Socioeconomic Diversity 12
A Core Story of Socioeconomic Mixing
To dislodge dominant, unproductive models and open up new, more productive ways of
thinking, communicators need a coherent and memorable narrative that they can share easily
and disseminate widely. Given the challenges posed by public understandings of economic
inequality and socioeconomic mixing, reframing these issues will require multiple tools that are
integrated into a narrative strategy; no single frame element will be able to meaningfully and
durably shift thinking on this complex set of issues. A successful strategy will require persistently
and consistently filling the gaps in understanding with a story that sticks and can be told in
Figure 3 summarizes strategies communicators should use to advance the public discussion on
socioeconomic mixing as well as frames they should avoid. We discuss each of these strategies in
Tell a consistent story, regardless of political
affiliations of the audience.
Don’t feed into ideological divides by using
Use the terms “socioeconomic mixing” and
“socioeconomically mixed neighborhoods.”
Don’t assume that renaming is reframing.
Use the value of Interdependence to bring
collective benefits and systems solutions into
Don’t dilute the power of an effective, tested
values frame with competing messages.
Rely on a tested explanatory metaphor—
Neighborhood Ground—to communicate the
importance of place and its effect on
Don’t zoom in on individual stories to
illustrate the role of place on life trajectories.
Use the Resources That Stick metaphor to
explain how socioeconomic mixing helps
distribute resources more equitably.
Don’t expect that stacks of statistics can take
the place of explanation.
Mixing it Up: Reframing Neighborhood Socioeconomic Diversity 13
Acknowledge people’s concerns about
unchecked gentrification, and use facts to
explain well-planned socioeconomic mixing.
Don’t allow “smart mixing” to be confused
with the disruptive, displacing effects of
Take the time it takes to introduce race in the
most powerful, productive way.
Don’t assert the impact of race and racism on
socioeconomic outcomes without
To develop this strategy, we conducted mixed-methods research that included qualitative
interviews and large-scale experimental surveys. In the experimental surveys, each respondent
read a message with a particular frame element (a value, explanatory metaphor, or explanatory
chain) in isolation or in combination or was assigned to a control group that received no
message. All respondents were then asked the same series of questions to measure their
understanding of and support for various aspects of socioeconomic mixing.5 Figure 4 contains
more information about these outcome measures.
Scales Sample Questions