Labour has spent hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money since 1997 on schemes such as Excellence in Cities and education action zones but the Cardiff university study found the money has been poorly targeted, with the schemes reaching only a small proportion of the people they were supposed to help.
It said that in some cases the initiatives, designed to help schooling in pockets of deprivation, have compounded the problems they were designed to overcome.
Chris Taylor, co-author of the study, suggested it was wrong to tackle the widely-spread problem of deprivation by focusing efforts and money on small areas.
"The idea that problems exist in a particular area is wrong," he said.
"Problems are spread more widely and levels of disadvantage changes over time."
Programmes have focused on short-term goals and improvements have been patchy.
Inspection and research evidence showed action zones met few of their original objectives such as to be test beds for innovation. In some, educational attainment actually fell as a result of the Government's intervention, the study found.
At the initiative's height there were 73 large zones covering more than 1,400 schools but their number shrunk to six after the Government decided to phase them out.
They have been replaced by 130 smaller EiC action zones, mostly in urban areas, which typically involve one secondary and a cluster of primaries.
The study found the requirement for areas to bid for money had forced them to emphasise their problems, such as domestic abuse and violence, reinforcing negative perceptions which hamper their recovery. It also accused the Government of ignoring historical evidence that shows area-based initiatives reach as few as one in five of the most disadvantaged children.
Instead, ministers have pressed ahead with such schemes to give the impression that they are doing something to tackle problems associated with deprivation.
Have Labour's promises been fulfilled? 18 The promise and perils of area-based initiatives: the UK experience, by Sally Power, Gareth Rees and Chris Taylor is available from PowerS3@cf.ac.uk