DuPage County one of the best counties for poor kids to move up

A recent study by two economists shows DuPage County is one of the best in United States for social mobility for those who start toward the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder:

On the other extreme, poor children raised in DuPage, Illinois, have the best shot at climbing the economic ladder. The Chicago suburb is home to several large corporations, including McDonald’s and Ace Hardware, and is one of the nation’s wealthiest counties. Children from poor families in DuPage grow up to earn 15%, or $3,900, more than the national average by the time they are 26.

To conduct the study, Professors Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren looked at tax records for more than 5 million children whose families moved from one county to another between 1996 and 2012. Their analysis showed that where children are raised does have an impact on their chances of moving up economically. In addition, the younger a child is when he or she moves to a neighborhood with more opportunity, the greater the income boost. Neighborhoods matter more for boys than for girls.

Chetty and Hendren did not say why neighborhoods have such an impact on children’s success. But it did find that counties with higher rates of upward mobility have five things in common: less segregation by race and income, lower levels of income inequality, better schools, lower crime rates and more two-parent households.

The duo, along with Harvard Professor Lawrence Katz, also released Monday a second study that examined the impact of a federal program from the mid-1990s to move low-income families to better neighborhoods. It found that children who relocated when they were younger than 13 made 31% more, on average, than their peers whose families were not given vouchers to move. The relocated children were also more likely to attend college and less likely to be single parents.

DuPage County is not the most diverse place  nor is the most integrated but it is pretty wealthy, has a number of good school districts, and has lots of jobs (across a range of sectors). It also has a reputation of being quite conservative and wasn’t that open to non-whites in the decades after World War II. Yet, I don’t find it too surprising that it would be a good place for social mobility though I imagine this might differ quite a bit across communities within the county.

The second study mentioned above looks at the Moving To Opportunity program which didn’t have immediate influence for adults who move but may just have good long-term impacts for kids. Read more about the latest findings here.

Following the ideals of Gautraux to deconcentrate poverty in the Chicago suburbs

The Gautreaux Program in Chicago preceded Moving To Opportunity and now there are more recent efforts to deconconcentrate poverty in the Chicago region:

After all, suburbs are no longer the bastions of privilege they once were (though majority white suburbs still, for the most part, are). Since the recession, it’s the exurbs in Chicago that have had job growth, while affordable housing near those jobs is often hard to find. Poverty is growing in suburbs across the country, including in Chicago, and moving families blindly out of the city may do more harm than good.

That’s why Chicago’s leaders are now focusing on helping low-income people live in mixed-income neighborhoods in both the suburbs and the city that have good access to transit and jobs, high homeownership rates, low commute times, walkable areas and a low percentage of people receiving public-housing assistance, said Robin Snyderman, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who also works as a consultant on housing policy in Chicago.

Nine housing authorities now participate in a regional pool of resources that began more than a decade ago. They include authorities in counties such as DuPage, Lake, and McHenry, using the money to build nearly 30 mixed-income developments in “opportunity areas” that are near transit and job opportunities.

“Just getting rental housing into some of these communities was hard to do for many years,” said Snyderman said.

A pilot program launched in 2011, the Chicago Region Housing Choice Initiative (CRHCI), encourages families to use vouchers to move to some of these locations, giving them counseling to help them do so.

Regional authorities and mayors have “adopted new tools for promoting inclusion and diversity, building on the lessons learned from Gautreaux,” she said. “I feel more hopeful that the historic segregation in the Chicago region can be transformed—because it’s now not all on the shoulders of the public housing authority,” she said.

See this earlier post about some of the results of the Moving To Opportunity program. These programs aren’t immediate panaceas and progress is often slow. It took decades to get Gautreaux into action and more time to assess results from MTO. Additionally, it can be difficult to get wealthier suburbs to buy in – if they do talk about affordable housing, it tends to involve seniors, young college graduates, or civil servants, not actually poorer residents.

In all, residential segregation is a difficult problem to address. If it is all left to the market, wealthier residents will move to nicer suburbs, maintaining or increasing their life chances, and then limit the access of others to move into their communities (even if they need them as workers in that community). Social programs can help but they can be costly, it takes time to assess their effectiveness, and it requires wealthier communities to get on board. This is one of those social problems that requires patience, active efforts, and time to see social change occur.

Summarizing research on the Moving to Opportunity program

Here is a brief overview of the sociological findings regarding the federal Moving to Opportunity program that moved poor urban residents to the suburbs in the hope of improving their life chances:

The findings revealed that while many study participants “successfully” escaped dangerous and stressful neighborhoods at first, most did not escape income poverty, and many ended up living back in high-poverty areas after a few years…

The experiment was conducted in five U.S. metro areas: Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. While the experiment showed that it was possible to dramatically improve quality of life for the poor, helping them escape poverty was another matter. “Many of us underestimated the barriers to employment, for example, for this highly disadvantaged group, and how small a difference relocation alone would make,” says Briggs, an associate professor of urban studies and planning…

The barriers were the greatest in sprawling Los Angeles, Briggs says. “The physical distances are so enormous, and many jobs are not accessible by public transportation. We spent time with moms who were getting up at 4 a.m. and driving 25 miles in one direction to leave their kids with a family member, and then 30 miles in another direction to work at a job where they might be put on a different shift, on a moment’s notice. The job itself was insecure, volatile, and poorly compensated. Lining up housing, work, and child care, and keeping them aligned, was immensely difficult.”

On the upside were dramatic changes in safety and security, particularly for young girls. They fared better overall in these new neighborhoods, escaping the predatory climate of their old neighborhoods. And parents in the study saw major reductions in anxiety and depression, and improvements in mental health, likely because of increased security and “freedom from fear.”

For more details, I recommend the book Moving to Opportunity: The Story of an American Experiment to Fight Ghetto Poverty. One takeaway: simply moving poor residents from one neighborhood to a better suburban one does not necessarily quickly lead to positive outcomes. Indeed, poverty is on the rise in the suburbs (here, here, and here) and it is difficult to provide services in these communities.

Argument: improve educational performance of poor children by moving them to the suburbs

Academic achievement is a familiar topic in recent American discourse: how exactly do we improve student performance, particularly for those who are behind? One foundation president suggest the answer is to have more poor kids move to the suburbs and attend suburban schools with wealthier children:

One of the most important recent pieces of education research was released last year — and promptly ignored. The Century Foundation’s report “Housing Policy is School Policy” confirms the seminal 1966 finding of Johns Hopkins University sociologist James Coleman: The school-based variable that most profoundly affects student performance is the socioeconomic composition of the school. In short, poor children do better if they attend schools with affluent children.

The “new” news in the report? It highlights the critical out-of-school influence of where the low-income children reside. Poor children attending an affluent school do even better, it turns out, if they also live in an affluent neighborhood.

There is more interesting material in here, including reference to the Gautreaux program in Chicago (see some of the academic research generated in studying this program) that was one of the first programs that moved public housing families to suburban neighborhoods. (However, there is no mention of over similar and bigger programs, like HUD’s Moving To Opportunity.)

As the article suggests, this is a difficult solution to implement. The suburbs tend to have more expensive housing, suburban residents can be resistant to minorities and the lower classes, support networks can be lacking, and transportation by automobile is often required (and is costly). Additionally, it is very hard to create laws that would force movement or impel suburban communities to build affordable housing.

More broadly, this piece is a reminder of the price of segregated housing in America. We have an ethos that says people can move wherever they want (particularly if they have the money) but there are a variety of factors that inhibit this. As American Apartheid suggests, residential segregation “is the ‘linchpin’ of American race relations.”