You Are Where You Live

New nationwide data released by the Census Bureau, in collaboration with researchers at Harvard University and Brown University, shows that the neighborhoods in which children grow up matter greatly to their future well being. The research, which predicts outcomes for children in each census tract, builds on previously released findings at the county level.

Nationwide, there are large disparities in outcomes between children raised in poor families (those whose household income is at the 25th percentile of the national income distribution) in some of the nation’s largest urban areas (e.g. Chicago, the Bronx, low-income neighborhoods in Manhattan, etc) and children raised in poor families in larger cities and other suburban counties. For example, children raised in low-income families in the Minneapolis suburbs end up making four times more in adulthood than children raised in low-income households in some Memphis neighborhoods.

But local disparities between what seem like similar neighborhoods is striking for policymakers. Even within Ann Arbor, children who grew up in poor families around parts of Elm Street and Hill Street are expected to earn about $54,000 a year in their adult households, whereas in the neighborhoring tract, which covers parts of Packard Street and South State Street, children who grew up in low-income households are expected to earn about $26,000 a year in their adult households. The big takeaway: children’s immediate environments (as close as within half a mile of a child’s home) affect a range of their adult outcomes such as income, incarceration rate, teenage pregnancy and college graduation.


The census tract-level atlas of children’s outcomes was constructed using de-identified data from the 2000 and 2010 Censuses linked to data from federal income tax returns and the 2005- 2015 American Community Surveys (ACS). Focusing on approximately 20.5 million children born between 1978 - 1983 in the United States and authorized childhood immigrants from the same cohorts, the researchers obtained information on their income, parental characteristics, where they grew up, and other variables. Many of the children have since moved away, but the researchers map their outcomes back to the census tracts where they grew up. To account for children who grew up in more than a single census tract, children are assigned weights according to the fraction of their childhood spent in each tract.

The researchers argue that the study allows policymakers to identify areas that are likely to produce good outcomes for the children who grow up there; areas where there are high opportunities for upward mobility. Interestingly, the researchers believe that the variation in outcome is driven by the neighborhoods themselves, not by differences in what brings people to live in them (e.g. low-income families clustering in the same neighborhoods). Assuming their model holds, this map could help policy makers identify high-opportunity areas to channel government programs (such as Head Start centers) or community grants, instead of just channeling funding to areas where neighborhood poverty is prevalent. The Seattle and King County housing authorities are hoping to use housing voucher programs to move families to where they believe opportunity already exists.

Further reading:

Eunice Yau

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