A lovely day in the neighborhood.

Social scientists contend that the location in which a child grows up correlates with their adult fate.[1]  On the one hand, there is adult income.[2]  One experiment that ran from 1994 to 1998 offered people living in public housing the opportunity to enter a lottery.[3]  Winners in the lottery received vouchers to help pay the rent if they moved to other areas.  The children of lottery winners (if they moved early enough) far outpaced the children of losers in subsequent earnings.[4]

The sequential demolition of the vast Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago between 1995 and 1998 displaced both those who did want to move and those who did not want to move.  All had to go and all received housing vouchers.  Comparing those who moved—willingly or unwillingly—with those who remained behind, economists have found that a) those who moved were 9 percent more likely to be employed than those who remained behind; and b) they earned 16 percent more than those who remained behind.

Then there is life-span.[5]  Rich people have lived longer than poor people for quite a while.  At the start of this century the average billionaire lived 12 years longer than the average street-person.  Today the gap has widened to 15 years.  Social scientists (and, for all I know, anti-social scientists or just the John Frink, Jr.s of this world) have documented that there is a very uneven distribution of extra years among poor people.  The poor in some places live almost as long as the rich, but they die young in other places.  On average, poor men in New York City live for 79.5 years; poor men in Gary, Indiana live for only 74. 2 years.

The studies suggest that altering the habits and attitudes of poor people in the blighted areas could extend lives.  First of all, in the housing-voucher lottery, only one-fourth of the people who were offered the chance to join the lottery did so.  Those who did apply have been characterized as “particularly motivated to protect their children from the negative effects of a bad neighborhood.”  This means that three-quarters of the people offered the chance to join the lottery were not “particularly motivated to protect their children.”

Then, moving to a better neighborhood increased likelihood of being employed by only 9 percent.  That’s better than nothing, but it isn’t much of a bump.  Moving to a better neighborhood increased lifetime earnings by 16 percent.  How much is that in dollar figures?  It’s $45,000.  Spread over a possible 40 year working life, that’s $1,125 a year and about $0.55 per hour.  Is it worthwhile for a family to leave behind everyone they know, a “system” that they know how to navigate, for this kind of money?

Second, the rich live in healthier ways than do some poor people.  They eat better, they exercise more, they are less likely to be obese, they usually don’t smoke, and they are unlikely to use opiods.  Even demanding, stressful jobs don’t make them feel more stressed than do poor people.  Poor people often eat a poor diet, smoke, and don’t exercise (it’s hard running 5 miles if you’re a smoker). Diet propaganda, parenting education, anti-smoking campaigns, and adult exercise programs could make a big difference.

To an uncertain extent then, poverty is volitional, a choice.  See: Juan Williams.

[1] That raises a question: does the neighborhood itself cause this effect or do people with other characteristics and experiences just end up in certain kinds of neighborhoods?

[2] Given social class segregation, it isn’t readily apparent why this isn’t the same as saying that the social class in which a child grows up has a large effect on their adult income.  Maybe it’s just NewSpeak.

[3] Justin Wolfers, “Bad Neighborhoods Do More Harm Than We Thought,” NYT, 27 March 2016.

[4] However, another experiment found virtually no difference in outcomes between winners and losers.

[5] Neil Irwin and Quoctrung Bui, “Where the Poor Live in America May Help Determine Life Span,” NYT, 11 April 2016.

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