Black children pay a high price for living in poverty neighborhoods

In the United States, living in a poor neighborhood often means living in an environment that is unhealthy and violent, and may offer relatively poor learning opportunities and economic opportunities. The troubling news from this report is that inequality in our neighborhoods may be contributing to the persistence of racial differences in economic mobility. The hopeful news is that investments in neighborhoods that reduce the concentration of poverty could have powerful effects on the economic trajectories of children living within the most disadvantaged communities.
– Conclusion, Neighborhoods and the Black-White Mobility Gap

Neighborhoods and the Black-White Mobility Gap, a just released study by the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, offers compelling evidence that the life attainment of African-American children is greatly enhanced if they grow up outside of poverty neighborhoods.

A majority of black children grow up in poverty neighborhoods and the study found between 25% and 33% of the black-white income mobility gap is explained by this fact.

The study’s principal conclusions are…

  • Experiencing high neighborhood poverty throughout childhood strongly increases the risk of falling down the income ladder.
  • Only a very small percentage of white children live in high-poverty neighborhoods throughout childhood while a majority of black children do—a pattern that hasn’t changed in thirty years.
  • Neighborhood poverty explains one-quarter to one-third of the black-white gap in downward mobility.
  • The report’s analysis also suggests that black children who experience a reduction in their neighborhood’s poverty rate have greater economic success in adulthood than black children who experience poverty rates that increase or are stable.
  • Reducing the concentration of poverty in their neighborhoods could strongly impact children’s economic mobility.

The authors of the report suggest that massive public investment of services in lower income neighborhoods can produce an antidote.  But they emphasize the extent of the public commitment required and that favorable labor markets are necessary. “A broad interpretation of these results suggests that when residents of a place, such as a housing project or a low-income neighborhood, are provided services and incentives designed to facilitate employment they will benefit substantially. However, it is important to keep in mind that these programs were intensive interventions implemented in strong labor markets, and it is not known whether such interventions would be as effective when demand for labor is weak.”

In the real world of Texas, these type of public investments are simplify not going to occur except perhaps in one or two extraordinary instances. The lives of most African-American children living in poverty neighborhoods will not be touched by such interventions. To suggest that this is a realistic solution is fantasy or a crass deception.

We must not continue to place our exclusive emphasis on “guilding the ghetto” while focusing housing programs in poverty neighborhoods, expecting that non-existent public programs will somehow make these neighborhoods good places for the poor to live. What is needed instead is to use the housing resources that are now available to begin to create affordable housing outside of the ghetto.

The study’s findings highlight the tragedy of the Texas Legislature’s rejection earlier this year of a bill that would have adopted into state law the existing federal goal of requiring government programs to “affirmatively further fair housing.”

I came away from reading the Pew report more convinced than ever that aggressive steps need to be taken within the state low income housing tax credit (LIHTC) program to construct new affordable housing in “communities of opportunity” (low poverty neighborhoods). Neighborhood opposition from homeowner’s associations in high opportunity communities has lately constrained LIHTC funding largely to rehabilitating older properties that are mostly located in poverty neighborhoods.

The study suggests to me that the current Texas policy will confine up to one-third of future generations of African-American children living in these Texas LIHTC apartments to a lifetime of dramatically reduced economic attainment. This to too large of a price to pay to continue to pander to the racism and classism manifested in the NIMBY attitudes of middle class homeowner’s associations.

Federal, state and local officials should also take this study to heart and aggressively carry out the massive housing rebuilding programs now taking place in Texas to rebuild homes damaged by the hurricanes in a manner that does not force low income African American families back into segregated poverty neighborhoods. Under the existing program design this is precisely what is now happening. This troubling study points to the fundamental importance of the 1968 Civil Rights Act in seeking to open up housing choices beyond the ghetto to African-American families. The failure of the Texas Legislature to endorse this goal should not be an excuse to continue to ignore the moral and legal imperative of fair housing.

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