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Granite State Rumblings: Poverty and Geography Are Directly Connected

In 2008 Every Child Matters published a report entitled Geography Matters: Child Well Being in the States. It showed that while we all know the life chances of children are vastly improved when they are the top priority of supportive families and communities, some children do not fare as well as others. While all states provide a basic network of social programs to assist vulnerable children and families, a huge gap exists on a wide variety of child well-being indicators. Where families live should not adversely influence the life and death of children—but it does. “Such inequalities affect all Americans, rich and poor alike, and weaken both our economy and our democracy.”

Since the great recession we have seen the gap widen for more children and their families. Poverty has increased. Income has drastically fallen for too many families. And many states are placing significant restrictions on the programs designed to assist families, causing many to do without vital basic needs.

Katey Troutman writes in the Business CheatSheet, “When it Comes to Poverty, Where You Live Matters.”

In America, we often speak proudly about the idea that the U.S. is a nation where anything is possible. The story of the underdog rising from nothing is a potent piece of American mythology, and we like nothing better than to champion the idea that America is the ultimate “land of opportunity.”

Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist, is challenging that idea. His recent research suggests that the city where you grow up can have a huge impact on your likelihood of escaping poverty as an adult. Indeed, he found that the cities in which poor children grow up can actually help to predict the amount of money they will eventually earn as adults; he has published two different studies of intergenerational mobility which suggest that, in some ways, poverty is a place.

In one study, Chetty and his team studied families living in public housing who had been given housing vouchers which required them to move to a low poverty neighborhood. The children in those families, his research found, eventually grew up to earn much more than their former neighbors in public housing.

Chetty and his researchers found that 50 U.S. counties had the largest impact on kids’ incomes as adults, both positive and negative. At the top of the list, Dupage, Illinois, just ahead of the counties of Fairfax, Virginia and Snohomish, Washington.

At the regional level, Chetty and his team found that “relative mobility is lowest for children who grew up in the Southeast and highest in the Mountain West and rural Midwest.”

But just how much of a difference does it make, economically, if a child grows up in a “city of opportunity” versus the alternative? Well, in the top three ranking cities, poor children were expected to earn around $3,500 to $4,000 more than those children who grew up in average cities. In contrast, the cities at the bottom of the barrel, such as Mecklenburg, North Carolina; Baltimore City, Maryland, and Hillsborough, Florida poor children were expected to grow up to earn about $3,500 to $3,600 less than average. And while a few thousand dollars might not seem like a whole lot to the more affluent among us, for those on or near the poverty line, it often means the difference between survival and subsistence.

Chetty’s research also reflects that the level of inequality within the U.S. is more dramatic than we may have previously imagined it to be, even in lieu of movements such as “the 99%.” Chetty notes that there are certain regions within the U.S. which have relative mobility comparable to the highest mobility countries in the world, such as Canada and Denmark, while others have lower levels of mobility than any other developed country for which data are available.”

Chetty and his team found overall that there “is a substantial variation in intergenerational mobility within the U.S.” He later notes that the U.S. would almost be better described as “a collection of societies, some of which are ‘lands of opportunity’ with high rates of mobility across generations, and others in which few children escape poverty.” In other words, some cities are havens of opportunity and equality, making it possible for poor children to go farther, whereas others have a longer history of poverty, lack of opportunity, and disadvantage…

Chetty and his team have found that there are five factors which are the biggest hindrances to mobility. They are, according to his research: residential segregation, income inequality, school quality, social capital, and family structure.

The good news is that Chetty’s research can help policymakers and others involved in the process of city planning and organization understand how to make the poorest, least mobile cities, such as Baltimore, more like those with high levels of mobility, such as Dupage, Illinois, or nearby Fairfax, Virginia. It also provides evidence that something as simple as a move can have a huge impact on a poor child’s livelihood and chance of success…

In his introduction to his latest research Chetty notes the following, “We find that every year of exposure to a better environment improves a child’s chances of success, both in a national quasi-experimental study of five million families and in a re-analysis of the Moving to Opportunity Experiment.”

To look up statistics for your own county, use the interactive version of the map created by the New York Times.

GROWING UP GRANITE

There is still time to join a statewide conversation to share ideas with neighbors, hear the latest research, and inform the presidential primary campaigns about the increasing barriers our state’s children face in achieving their dreams.

This May, New Hampshire Listens–part of the Carsey School of Public Policy at UNH–is hosting twelve local conversations across the state that will engage residents in an important conversation about the increasing barriers our state’s children face in achieving their dreams. Research from the Carsey School and other sources will help frame the discussion. Attendees will learn about what the gaps are between the opportunities children have today compared with those of previous generations in our state. We invite you to join one of these conversations to weigh in with your experience and your perception of the opportunities, barriers, and prospects for future generations.

There are 3 more conversations scheduled for tonight, May 12th, in Keene, Lancaster and Portsmouth. And 3 more scheduled for tomorrow night, May 13th, in Rochester, Concord, and West Lebanon.

Click HERE to register.

This work is the culmination of several events and opportunities. First, awareness has increased across the state and nation about the realities of what our children can achieve economically, compared to previous generations. Second, prior to the release of Robert Putnam’s book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, cross partisan national leadership began reaching out to Putnam to bring his expertise and research to the issue of the country’s widening inequality gap. Finally the upcoming presidential primary season presents Granite State residents with a chance to voice their thoughts on these issues as our state becomes a first stop for those wishing to become president in 2016.

Join us to talk about:

  • What is the current state of the American Dream, especially in New Hampshire?
  • Is there less opportunity to get ahead in our communities now than in previous generations?
  • How can access to the American Dream be preserved and expanded?

For all events, doors open at 5:30 p.m. and the program runs from 6:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.

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About MaryLou Beaver

New Hampshire Campaign Director Every Child Matters Education Fund
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