Article: An Atlas of Upward Mobility Shows Path Out of Poverty

[Fascinating re-examination of the infamous Moving to Opportunity study that discouragingly found that giving families vouchers to move into higher-income neighbourhoods did not have the positive impacts hoped for. This reanalysis shows that zip codes matter, even if you move in the midst of growing up. This made me consider school integration policies (which have been largely gutted or undermined by white flight), housing policy, and the scale of impact (is working with individuals or systems the right move?). Moving is no panacea but the data are striking. Explore the interactive map too!]

An Atlas of Upward Mobility Shows Path Out of Poverty

May 4, 2015 New York Times

By David Leonhardt, Amanda Co, and Claire Cain Miller

In the wake of the Los Angeles riots more than 20 years ago, Congress created an anti-poverty experiment called Moving to Opportunity. It gave vouchers to help poor families move to better neighborhoods and awarded them on a random basis, so researchers could study the effects.

The results were deeply disappointing. Parents who received the vouchers did not seem to earn more in later years than otherwise similar adults, and children did not seem to do better in school. The program’s apparent failure has haunted social scientists and policy makers, making poverty seem all the more intractable.

Now, however, a large new study is about to overturn the findings of Moving to Opportunity. Based on the earnings records of millions of families that moved with children, it finds that poor children who grow up in some cities and towns have sharply better odds of escaping poverty than similar poor children elsewhere.

The city is especially harsh for boys: Low-income boys who grew up there in recent decades make roughly 25 percent less as adults than similar low-income boys who were born in the city and moved as small children to an average place.

Beyond Baltimore, economists say the study offers perhaps the most detailed portrait yet of upward mobility — and the lack of it. The findings suggest that geography does not merely separate rich from poor but alsoplays a large role in determining which poor children achieve the so-called American dream.

How neighborhoods affect children “has been a quandary with which social science has been grappling for decades,” said David B. Grusky, director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Stanford University, who was not involved in the research. “This delivers the most compelling evidence yet that neighborhoods matter in a really big way.”

Raj Chetty, one of the study’s authors, has presented the findings to members of the Obama administration, as well as to Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jeb Bush, both of whom have signaled that mobility will be central themes of their 2016 presidential campaigns. After more than 15 years of mostly mediocre economic growth and rising income inequality, many families say they are frustrated and anxious about trying to get ahead.

“The data shows we can do something about upward mobility,” said Mr. Chetty, a Harvard professor, who conducted the main study along withNathaniel Hendren, also a Harvard economist. “Every extra year of childhood spent in a better neighborhood seems to matter.”

The places where poor children face the worst odds include some — but not all — of the nation’s largest urban areas, like Atlanta; Chicago; Los Angeles; Milwaukee; Orlando, West Palm Beach and Tampa in Florida; Austin, Tex.; the Bronx; and the parts of Manhattan with low-income neighborhoods.

All else equal, low-income boys who grow up in such areas earn about 35 percent less on average than otherwise similar low-income children who grow up in the best areas for mobility. For girls, the gap is closer to 25 percent.

Many of these places have large African-American populations, and the findings suggest that race plays an enormous but complex role in upward mobility. The nation’s legacy of racial inequality appears to affect all low-income children who live in heavily black areas: Both black and white children seem to have longer odds of reaching the middle class, and both seem to benefit from moving to better neighborhoods.

{The former home of the Polk family in Bellwood, Ill.  The fatal shooting of Latonya Polk’s husband there prompted her to move away with her two children in search of a safer place.}

2 Comments Add yours

  1. cwh says:

    This reminds me of an enthnography from the past called Ain’t No Makin’ It by Jay MacLeod. It also reminds me to reread everything Richard Rothstein has written about housing policy and institutional racism. Thanks for posting!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. la-p says:

      I’ll take a look, thanks!!


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