The Costs of Concentrated Poverty
The sentencing last month of 25-year old Derek Lemon to life in prison for homicide made me think again about the costs of growing up in concentrated poverty. At age 8, Lemon watched as two other children, just 10 and 11 themselves, threw his 5-year old brother, Eric Morse, out the window of a vacant unit in a public housing high-rise—allegedly because he refused to steal chocolate bars for them. The housing project where it happened is long gone, but every time I visit the site, I think about how one child died and three other children’s lives were ruined—all three older boys are spending the rest of their still-young lives behind bars. And I think about the terrible costs of turning a blind eye to the ways that neighborhood poverty can blight children’s life chances.
In the most severely distressed public housing, gangs, drug use, and drug trafficking run rampant, gunshots ring out every day, domestic violence is commonplace, relatively few adults have regular jobs or high school degrees, many men are caught up in the criminal justice system, and few are actively involved in raising their children. While violent tragedies like Eric Morse’s murder are rare, more mundane tragedies aren’t. Research amply documents the costs for children—low birth weights and early developmental delays; high rates of asthma, diabetes, obesity, and depression; parents too overwhelmed with their own challenges to provide warm, loving care. The sadly predictable outcomes for children and youth include failure in school, delinquency, and alienation. Boys face a high risk of entanglement in the criminal justice system and girls of sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, and teen pregnancy.
Over the past 20 years, policy makers have tried various approaches to “deconcentrate” poverty so fewer communities suffer extreme distress. The HOPE VI Program gave housing authorities grants to demolish their most distressed developments; like hundreds of others, the Chicago high-rise project where Eric Morse died has been replaced with a much safer mixed-income community. Most former residents who have moved with housing choice - Section 8 - vouchers now live in neighborhoods that are also safer and less poor. Other HUD initiatives, like Moving to Opportunity, provided public housing residents with housing vouchers they could use only in low-poverty areas.
Yet, most who moved to safer places still live in moderately poor areas, and at least thus far, there’s little evidence that their children’s life chances look dramatically brighter. And tens of thousands of children are still stuck in traditional public housing or other poor communities. These are the kids, our research shows, who are struggling against poor odds to make successful transitions to adulthood, especially if their parents are troubled as well.
There’s renewed interest in tackling the problems of distressed, high-poverty neighborhoods—and restoring opportunities to the children who live there. The highly regarded Harlem Children’s Zone and schools like the KIPP academies show that it’s possible to help children from even the worst neighborhoods succeed in school. The federal Promise Neighborhoods initiative builds on these models, creating linked webs of support—from “cradle to career”—for children growing up in poor, deprived communities. Most of these efforts are either small or new, but still show the potential to help thousands of poor children. Remembering Eric Morse’s story should focus our attention on finding solutions that can prevent more such tragedies for children.