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September 2, 2015

Experiment highlights effects of poor neighborhoods

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Where children grow up has a big impact on their ability to improve their economic standing later in life, new research says.

Economists from Harvard University studied data sets from across the U.S. and determined that children living in low-poverty neighborhoods were more likely to attend college, avoid teen pregnancy and have stable jobs and families as adults than those living in high-poverty areas.

Over the past several years, Harvard visiting professor Raj Chetty studied five million children living in economically and racially segregated cities like Atlanta and Detroit.  Children in the poor areas have less access to quality education and fewer role models to look to as examples of success, Chetty said.

Chetty and other researchers recently published their findings on the Moving to Opportunity Experiment, which began in the 1990s. In the experiment, some low income families living in major cities received housing vouchers allowing them to move to better areas, while other families remained in the high-poverty neighborhoods.

By studying those families today, Chetty found that children who moved from high-poverty to low-poverty areas at a young age grew up to earn 30 percent more on average than those who remained.

The study also showed that the age of a child at the time of the move influences their chances of success. For children who moved later in adolescence, the benefits of moving to a higher income area may have come too late.

Despite the findings, Chetty said simply moving families from one place to another cannot solve the problem of equalizing economic opportunity in the U.S. In cities like Baltimore with extensive poverty throughout, people earn who grow up there earn 30 percent less than the average American.

“Ultimately, the solution can’t be you’re going to move everybody out of Baltimore,” he said. “You have got to figure out how you can fix things in Baltimore.”


Warm up questions
  1. How does where you grow up impact the rest of your life?
  2. What kinds of opportunities are more available in wealthy areas than poor areas?
  3. How much does education impact what you earn as an adult?
Critical thinking questions
  1. Should programs like the Moving to Opportunity Experiment be expanded? Why or why not?
  2. Why can’t everyone living in a high-poverty area move to a better neighborhood?
  3. What can be done to improve opportunities in high-poverty areas?
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