Twenty years ago, Congress, in response to the Los Angeles riots, created an experiment called Moving to Opportunity. The premise was to help poor families move to better neighborhoods. Vouchers were awarded randomly and researchers sat back to see what would happen.
Unfortunately, not much changed. Parents on the receiving end of the vouchers did not earn more than other poor adults as the years passed. Children who were part of the experiment seemed not to do better in school, reported The New York Times.
The study was a real disappointment to social scientists and policymakers and made poverty itself seem even more uncontrollable — but a new study may just throw the findings of Moving to Opportunity into a tailspin. The study looked at the earning records of millions of families who moved with children and found that poor children who grow up in certain cities and towns have significantly better chances of leaving poverty behind than did similar children living in other venues.
Many who participated in the recent Baltimore protests spoke of feeling trapped in poverty, which is a common theme in the new study. Of the country's 100 largest cities, the one where kids face the highest probability of being unable to escape poverty is Baltimore, according to the data. David Grusky, director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Stanford University, who was not involved in the research, says the way in which neighborhoods affect children has puzzled social science for many years.
"This delivers the most compelling evidence yet that neighborhoods matter in a really big way," said Grusky.
One of the study's authors, Raj Chetty, has presented the findings to members of the Obama administration, as well as to Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, both of whom will include mobility in their 2016 presidential campaign.
"The data show we can do something about upward mobility," said Chetty, a Harvard professor, who conducted the main study with Nathaniel Hendren, also a Harvard economist. "Every extra year of childhood spent in a better neighborhood seems to matter."
Low-income boys, all else being equal, who grow up in the nation's largest urban areas (Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, et al.) earn an average of about 35% less than otherwise similar low-income boys who grow up in the best areas for mobility. The gap is about 25% for girls.
The places where upward mobility is most possible are cities like San Francisco, San Diego, Salt Lake City and suburban counties like Fairfax, Va., Bergen, NJ, and Bucks, Pa. The positive offerings these places share are elementary school with higher student test scores, a higher number of two-parent families, a large number of citizens involved in civic and religious groups, and more neighborhoods that have a mixture of affluent, middle class, and poor families.
According to National Review's Jonah Goldberg, Chetty and his colleagues found that the sooner kids left impoverished neighborhoods and moved to low-poverty venues the better they did over their lifetimes. In fact, their lifetime earnings increase by approximately $302,000. The findings also suggest that girls had a 26% better chance of not becoming single mothers.
Economist Justin Wolfers writes that these studies "are the most powerful demonstration yet that neighborhoods — their schools, community, neighbors, local amenities, economic opportunities and social norms — are a critical factor shaping your children's outcomes."
Chetty ran a second study with Nathaniel Hendren which looked at the impact of moving from one county to another, based on tax returns from 5 million children whose families moved to another county between the years of 1996 and 2012. With the data they gleaned they were able to assign values to every county in America, says Matthew Yglesias of Vox. They found, for example that a child who is poor and grows up in Brooklyn will earn $1,500 less when he reaches 26 than the average poor kid.
A poor child who lives in King County, Washington will earn $2,960 more than the average US citizen. But what makes a neighborhood "bad?" Is it bad schools, high crime stress, lack of job opportunities, no positive role models, lead poisoning, atmospheric toxins? This question has not yet been answered, but evidence does suggest that all of these conditions could play a part.