Your research has found that there’s reason to focus policy efforts to improve neighborhoods in order to improve opportunities for people. Where did you grow up, and how did it affect you? What did your research find about the influence of neighborhoods on us?
As appeared in the Cleveland Fed Digest's Ask the Expert
I grew up in a suburb on the north side of Indianapolis. When I think about my neighborhood’s effects in the context of the research I’m doing, I think about some of the things I didn’t have to deal with as a kid. I’m grateful for the peaceful childhood my neighborhood afforded me.
In an Economic Commentary years ago, I found two really interesting things: one, that black boys born between 1980 and 1984 were exposed to tremendous amounts of violence at a young age nationwide—26 percent of black boys said they saw someone shot or shot at before the age of 12. We’re talking little kids being exposed to things that would be traumatic for adults to experience.
One might imagine that the 26 percent exposed to this violence represent the subset of kids who put themselves in especially risky situations. But where I grew up, even the subset of kids who put themselves in risky situations wasn’t seeing people getting shot at 9, 10, or 11 years old. In my neighborhood, I didn’t have to worry about my physical safety. I could play with my friends outside. I was exposed to different types of role models who made me feel nurtured and encouraged to grow.
The second thing I found? If you were exposed to gun violence at a young age, you are more than twice as likely to engage in violence at age 15. Race, mother’s educational attainment, single versus two-parent family structure—those things don’t matter in terms of engaging in violence or graduating from high school once one controls for exposure to violence at a young age.
We could do more to support the kids growing up in poor and violent neighborhoods. You can see this in our research connected with Moving to Opportunity (MTO). MTO was a once-in-a-generation experiment that aimed to move people from high-poverty neighborhoods to lower-poverty neighborhoods. A follow-up study made it appear that neighborhoods weren’t as important as previously thought. People moved to lower-poverty neighborhoods, but their outcomes (education and labor market success, for example) didn’t change. Our research argues that MTO shows that neighborhoods do matter. We found the quality of the schools in the places where participants moved wasn’t much better, and the percentage of poverty in their new neighborhoods might have been 40 percent rather than 50, on average. Given that 40 percent poverty is still completely exceptional and out of the mainstream, in the sense that very few people experience such concentrated poverty, I wouldn’t expect the effects of such a move to be large. The bigger lesson to take from the experiment, though, is the importance of racial segregation: Black people moved from really poor black neighborhoods to black neighborhoods that look a lot like high-poverty white neighborhoods. The typical poverty rate in even the destination black neighborhoods is exceptional for white neighborhoods.
The types of environments that we create through policy matters a lot. The kinds of neighborhoods, the structure of a city—its transportation, access to green spaces, public security, and more—can really matter for the success of its residents.
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