Most of us take it for granted that where we live, and especially where our kids grow up, makes a big difference. But this proposition—that neighborhoods matter—is still the topic of spirited disagreement and debate in the scholarly world. I just read the latest collection of research on this topic (Neighborhood and Life Chances: How Place Matters in Modern America, edited by Harriet Newburger, Eugenie Birch, and Susan Wachter) and draw several lessons.
Neighborhoods do in fact alter children’s long-term prospects, but we don’t entirely understand how. Street crime and violence, lousy schools, dilapidated parks and rec centers, and a dearth of decent grocery stores all pose serious risks for kids. These neighborhood effects help explain why so many kids who are born poor, especially minority kids, remain poor into adulthood.
We still have a lot to learn about exactly how our neighborhoods affect our kids. It’s clearly not a simple cause-and-effect process. Much of what a neighborhood has to offer, both good and bad, depends on who lives there. And our choices about where to live are influenced by our priorities (good schools or a short commute? cheap rent or low crime?), our budgets, and whether we feel welcome. So the link between people and the places they live looks less like a one-way arrow than a tangle of feedback loops, where both people and places are changing all the time.
This dynamic complexity makes it tough for researchers to nail down conclusions about causality, and even tougher for policymakers (and constituents) to figure out how to “fix” troubled neighborhoods for the benefit of poor kids and their families.
We’ve been arguing for way too long about whether public policies should focus on helping people or fixing places. To me, it’s painfully obvious that we should do three things at once: 1) help vulnerable families and kids, regardless of where they’re located; 2) fix the distressed places in which too many of them live; and 3) help poor families move from distressed places to opportunity-rich places if they want to.
These are complementary, not competing strategies. In fact, failing on any one of them makes it harder to succeed on the others. Instead of bickering about which strategy (place-based or people-based) wins across the board, we should be figuring out how each can contribute.
For example, suppose a city simultaneously expanded Head Start so all poor kids got a better start, sent the best teachers and principals to elementary schools in the poorest neighborhoods, changed enrollment policies so kids attending failing schools were first in line to transfer to high-performing schools, and built affordable homes in neighborhoods with great schools. Maybe then we’d see real gains in the school success and life prospects of poor black and Latino kids.