Neighborhoods: Stepping Stones or Millstones for Kids

In 1969, Elvis Presley had a hit song titled "In the Ghetto." The song tells the heartbreaking story of a child born to grow-up, live and die a violent death trapped in a neighborhood and a cycle of poverty from which he couldn't escape.
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In 1969, Elvis Presley had a hit song titled "In the Ghetto." The song tells the heartbreaking story of a child born to grow-up, live and die a violent death trapped in a neighborhood and a cycle of poverty from which he couldn't escape.

The song dramatically illustrates how place and circumstances impact a kid's future and potential. The song was true back then. And, as recent studies by Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, and by Chetty and Hendren with Lawrence Katz show, it remains true today.

The findings of these studies are summarized in an excellent New York Times article written by Justin Wolfers and edited by David Leonhardt. They observe, "These two new 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."

They go on to report that these two studies - one with a small experimental sample of four thousand and the other tracking five million people over 17 years - revealed that children who moved into "good" neighborhoods fared much better than those who were stuck in "the ghetto". Importantly, the studies also showed that the beneficial effects were greatest for those youth who moved at a young age with "each extra year in a worse neighborhood leading to worse long run outcomes."

These studies provide definitive proof that moving to a different and better neighborhood can change lives. The question becomes whether it is possible to change poor neighborhoods themselves to make them better "launching pads" for the kids growing up there.

The answer to that at present is equivocal. But, given the increasing economic and racial segregation in our urban areas, an affirmative response is demanded and approaches must be developed in order to deliver it.

We commented on the extent and nature of the neighborhood differential in three recent blogs: Opportunity Inequality: The Plight of America's Poor Kids; America's Cities: An 'Urban Crisis' Ignored; and Baltimore and Beyond. Since that time, new evidence has come out to add further depth and dimension to the nature of this intensifying problem.

In its new study of almost 100 American cities. Measure of America found that over 5 and one-half million young people ages 16 to 24 are neither working nor in school. As the New York Times noted in an editorial on this, "Neighborhoods where these young people tend to live also display common characteristics, including high poverty, high unemployment rates and housing segregation."

Another study by Stanford researchers highlights, as David Leonhardt labels it, "the neighborhood gap." That gap according to Leonhardt is that "Even among white and black families with similar incomes, white families are much more likely to live in good neighborhoods - with high quality schools, day care options, parks, playground and transportation options."

The evidence is overwhelming. Neighborhoods matter. They matter a lot.

Given that, what can be done to close the neighborhood gap? How can we turn poor urban neighborhoods that are currently millstones for the kids that live there into stepping stones?

One logical starting place is with the neighborhood school. That is if there is still a school in the poor neighborhood.

Due to the budgetary crisis precipitated in part by the Great Recession, many cities such as Chicago eliminated a number of neighborhood schools. By so doing, they removed one of the last sources of stability or possible engines of economic and community development from those neighborhoods.

In contrast, Cincinnati is trying to use the neighborhood school as the fulcrum in an attempt to give the kids in these neighborhoods a fighting chance to compete with the kids in better neighborhoods. As Amy Scott of public radio writes, in Cincinnati, "City leaders not only decided to rebuild their rundown school buildings, but to transform them into 'community learning centers' that would be neighborhood hubs providing health and social services as well as traditional instruction."

Scott features Oyler Community Learning Center in her piece. The Center serves children from 6 weeks to 12th grade.

In the past, Oyler had only an elementary and middle school and most students dropped out rather than go to a high school outside the neighborhood. Today, Oyler also has a high school that graduates about 40 to 50 students per year many of whom go to college.

Oyler's transformation has not been a total success. As Scott reports,"Oyler's results have been mixed. While performance on state tests climbed for five years, scores have lagged in the past two ranks in the bottom 5 percent of schools (in Ohio) for its academic performance."

Nonetheless, according to Scott, "Oyler has become a model for similar efforts around the country, including an initiative in New York City to create dozens of new community schools with health services and other resources."

Can neighborhood schools be the salvation for the crumbling dreams of our inner city kids? Personally, we believe they can and must be part of the answer - but only part. They provide a necessary but not sufficient condition for neighborhood transformation.

The neighborhood gap is a complex and multifaceted problem that requires a holistic solution addressing numerous areas including family structure, family development and parenting, schools and community renewal. Creating approaches to close that gap will demand our best thinking.

Fortunately, that thinking has begun. For example, Robert Putnam of Harvard has set forth a wide range of corrective measures for evaluation in his new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. David Kirp of the University of California at Berkeley in his books Improbable Scholars and Kids First details a strategy and ideas that warrant consideration.

As we said in an earlier blog, "There are more than enough good ideas to address the problems confronting poor kids and there are compelling economic, moral and ethical reasons for doing so. What is needed now is the courage and compassion to bring this issue out of the shadows and into the bright light of the public square."

Many years ago in 1969, Elvis Presley sang
People don't you understand
The child needs a helping hand
Or he will grow up to be an angry young man some day

Now, in 2015, it appears that we are beginning to understand. Change the neighborhood and you change the child's life.

Mr. Rogers always understood this and that is why he sang:
It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?

Neighborhoods - stepping stones or millstones? The choice is ours. Let's make it the right one for all of our American kids.

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