We know that the neighborhood in which children grow up affects how economically successful they will be as adults.
A powerful new data tool shows how profound this neighborhood effect is, and how a child growing up in a neighborhood dominated by low-income households faces very difficult odds of achieving upward mobility.
This difficulty is particularly pronounced in poor Detroit neighborhoods, and it underscores the challenges that Southwest Solutions confronts as it seeks to help improve lives and implement place-based neighborhood-revitalization strategies, especially in southwest Detroit.
The new data tool is called the Opportunity Atlas. It was created by a research team at Harvard University and it combines Census data with Internal Revenue Services (IRS) data to show how children growing up in each census tract in the nation fare as adults, in terms of income and other measures. Specifically, it tracks children who were born between 1978 and 1983, and thus are now 35 to 40 years old. Using the Opportunity Atlas, you can trace demographic subsets based on variables of parental income and race of the child. So, for example, for a particular census tract, you can determine how black children who grew up in low-income households are currently doing economically.
What the Opportunity Atlas reveals about the prospects of low-income children growing up in southwest Detroit neighborhoods is unsettling. In general, these children did worse economically than children with similar backgrounds across the country.
Consider census tract 5255. It’s bounded by Livernois, West Grand, Buchanan and Michigan Avenue. It includes the Newberry neighborhood where Southwest Solutions is embarking on a project to transition 60 rental houses into affordable homeownership. For black children who grew up in poor households in this tract, their average household income today is only $18,000. They are doing poorer than their low-income parents did. In comparison to others of similar background in the country, less than 2% of these individuals are in the top 20% of household income for this select demographic. About a quarter of the black children who grew up in poverty in this tract continue to live in the immediate area. Almost 90% continue to live in Detroit. Only 10% are married.
For poor black children who grew up in the census tracts adjacent to 5255, the outcomes are similar or even worse. This disturbing trend for black children growing up in poverty is seen in census tracts throughout southwest Detroit (and the city as a whole), except for a couple of notable exceptions.
In the southwest Detroit neighborhood near the Woodmere Cemetery, poor black children who grew up there (and are now 35-40 years old) are doing relatively well economically. Their average individual income is now $42,000 a year. Almost half of these individuals are in the top 20% of income earnings when compared to those of similar backgrounds across the nation. 53% are married. These earnings and marriage rates far exceed any other census tract in southwest Detroit (for black children who grew up in low-income households).
What accounts for the success of the low-income black children from this neighborhood? The researchers at Harvard believe that part of the reason may be that there was a much higher percentage of intact black families in this neighborhood, and fathers or father-figures were much more likely to be in the home. Indeed, fathers or father-figures were present in more than 80% of the households.
In addition to this stable family situation, low-income black families in the neighborhood had good access to stable housing with the opportunity to build wealth through affordable homeownership. The neighborhood was also much more integrated at the time, “a better melting pot,” as one long-time resident described it. Black families accounted for less than 10% of the households, with the rest divided between Latino and white families.
The conditions that were conducive to the future success of low-income black children in the Woodmere neighborhood point to some important lessons, but those lessons are very hard to apply to other neighborhoods in the city and contemporary revitalization strategies. Furthermore, in the Woodmere tract since 2000, the number of black households has decreased, the poverty rate has climbed to 43%, and homeownership rates declined because of the foreclosure crisis and increased poverty.
For Latino children who grew up in low-income households in southwest Detroit, the outcomes are better than for low-income black children, but they still lag behind the prospects of children of similar background growing up around the country. Low-income Latino children who grew up in southwest Detroit neighborhoods (and who are now 35-40 years old) are now earning household incomes averaging $29,000 to $33,000, with slight variations across the census tracts. Marriage rates range from 30 to 40 percent.
In every census tract in southwest Detroit, the prospects of upward mobility for low-income Latino children were poorer than the average for similar children in America.
The cycle of generational poverty remains deeply entrenched in southwest Detroit. We cannot ignore the role that the breakdown of the family is playing in this trend. For low-income black households, this breakdown is particularly acute. For low-income Latino households, family disintegration continues to increase.
How to address poverty and improve the economic and life prospects for children under these inauspicious conditions remains the formidable challenge for all organizations and sectors working on this pressing issue that is at the heart of social equity goals and creating “a city for all.” What the Opportunity Atlas shows is that overcoming this challenge must involve transforming neighborhoods of disadvantage into neighborhoods of opportunity. There is no clear formula to effect this transformation, but it should include affordable housing and homeownership, good schools and job training programs, opportunities for families to build wealth, and initiatives to strengthen the family structure.