The US Census Bureau, along with researchers from Harvard and Brown universities, tracked the economic trajectories of 20 million children beginning in the mid-1980s (aged mid-30s today). The result is the Opportunity Atlas, an interactive map that overlays multiple data points onto each of the 70,000 Census tracks in the country (a Census tract contains 4,200 people). Data tracked includes parental income level, race and gender along with incarceration rates.
The most interesting conclusions showed that while average neighborhood income is certainly a key indicator, neighborhoods with similar incomes, in close proximity, produced startlingly different outcomes for children. It’s here where I’ll say that while the data collected can be used by policymakers to influence spending and programs, there is no specific “eureka” that turns around the economic trajectories of a neighborhood’s children. Bethany Erickson already looked at this issue thoroughly, but there is more to be said about the numbers.
The major levers are neighborhood income (what I’ll call “hope”), two-parent households (familial stability), rates of incarceration (despair) and, of course, race and gender. What’s interesting is that easy conclusions can’t really be made. There’s a “secret sauce” at work.
For example, there are exponentially fewer women in jail than men. Why does gender matter with other variables being equal? Why aren’t there as many bad girls as bad boys in the same situations? Why do the same areas report wildly different incarceration rates by race? Sure, a lot of the racial disparity is the result of a generations-long focus on policing minorities, but why don’t Hispanics have the nearly the same levels as Blacks in the same excruciatingly small neighborhood? Is it really a bias of the darker, the guiltier?
That’s an easy assumption to make until you add in Caucasian prison rates. If the above chart is a microcosm, Hispanics are the least jailed. In fact, low income Hispanics are jailed at a quarter the rate of whites and a third as often across all income levels (in this area).
While pinpointing relationships and results is daunting, one thing these maps demonstrate with clarity are the adjacencies of very different areas. Just to the south of the above example, the incarceration rate is 1.6 percent while to the north it’s 3.5 percent. Sometimes small moves can reap big benefits. Of course those rewards cost. Median household income in the subject tract is $19,000 while to the south it’s $30,000 – the difference in average rent is $325 per month.
The question for municipalities, charities and agencies is whether it’s worth it to subsidize housing in better areas knowing the adult income of children will be more likely to raise them out of needing assistance? I’d say “yes.” If assistance is going to be offered, it’s clearly better to offer that help where it will be most effective across generations.
And speaking of the long term, is the fact of more Black men being in jail, resulting in more single-parent households, also promulgating anti-social behavior across generations? Again, I’ll say “yes”. Certainly there’s a strong correlation between mirrored behavior in the home and eventual adult behaviors. Alcoholism, abuse, victimhood and other anti-social behaviors certainly transcend generations as learned behaviors.
You’re likely wondering why, with all the growth Dallas is experiencing, we’re still falling behind. From 1990 to 2010, Dallas saw jobs grow 40 percent, one of the highest in the nation. At the same time, Dallas’ poor remain in the lowest quartile. What’s happened is that the jobs didn’t increase training or hiring of local people. Instead, the new jobs brought workers from out of state who were better qualified and subsequently paid more.
All our corporate headquarters poaching hasn’t really helped Dallasites, it simply added a layer of better qualified, better paid workers on top. If we want jobs to help move the needle, corporations need to train and hire locals.
I like data. I think large data sets are at once complicated and enlightening. But in this case there’s a secret sauce that’s so far obscured. Why when all things are seemingly equal are the outcomes of children vastly different? As I said in the beginning, a lot has to do with things I call hope, stability, and the corollary, despair.
These concepts can be impacted by money, absolutely. But they’re also part of the fabric of families and neighborhoods that are cut and shaped over decades. Spousal abuse doesn’t just stop by adding money or moving house. It stops when one child grows up and stops the pattern. We as a society have a hard time teaching such concepts.
Earlier research has clearly shown that the earlier a child is removed from a poorly performing environment, the more impact on their eventual outcome and income. “Poorly performing” can describe economics, abuse, or any number of social behaviors. Regardless of the behavior, modeling successful behavior is the key to change. You only speak French well when you speak it every day, not every few years.
What this all seems (once again) to point to is that society is best served by neighborhoods mixed on every level, the way they had been for millennia until the past few decades. Poverty begets generational poverty with little upward mobility. Concentrated wealth breeds generations further removed from humanity who disdain those with less with ever-increasing ease.
Unfortunately, one of the recommendations of this research isn’t to go back to more integrated neighborhoods. Instead the report seeks to identify and encourage movement to “opportunity bargain” areas (where outcomes are above economic norms). In addition, figuring out how to replicate more successful areas in existing underperforming areas. As I’ve said, understanding, capturing and embedding the secret sauce is difficult to recreate. And full-bore colonization of better-performing marginal areas with transplanted residents (in hopes its success will rub off) will likely dilute an area’s positive effect.
Fixing the ever-increasing incidence of children economically less-advantaged than their parents is going to be as difficult as it was simple to achieve. It would require those with too much to give back a little.
Remember: High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the National Association of Real Estate Editors recognized my writing with three Bronze (2016, 2017, 2018) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards. Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make? Shoot me an email firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.