It is becoming increasingly difficult to contest the belief that where you grow up greatly determines your future success. Economist Raj Chetty recently conducted a landmark economic mobility study which shows that a child who is raised in Baltimore City, Maryland will suffer a 17.2 percent loss in future earnings in comparison to the national average. Meanwhile, merely by growing up in DuPage County, Illinois, the same child would enjoy 15 percent higher than average future earnings.

These statistics affirm the fact that neighborhoods matter. They mean the difference between better or worse schools and violent or safe streets. They set expectations for the children growing up there and the amount of stress parents undergo while raising them.

This makes it especially disturbing that poor children are more likely than poor adults to live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty (defined as census tracts where the federal poverty rate is 40 percent or more), which is one of the many findings in Architecture of Segregation, a new report by TCF fellow Paul Jargowsky that examines the large rise in the number of people living in high-poverty neighborhoods over the last few decades.

Not All Children Are Created Equal

Jargowsky’s report found that not only are poor children the most likely demographic to live in high-poverty neighborhoods, but the numbers also vary by race and age. For example, black and Hispanic children are much more likely to live in concentrated poverty compared to white children. Even nonpoor black children of all ages are more likely than poor white children to live in these neighborhoods. To make matters worse, younger children among all races are more likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods than older ones.

Not All Cities Are Created Equal

The numbers also vary greatly by metropolitan area. I looked at additional data provided by Jargowsky to see which areas are doing the worst when it comes to the cohort of children under six years old.


Click image for interactive data points by metropolitan statistical area.

Percentage of Poor Children Under Six Living in High-Poverty Neighborhoods

Source: 2009-2013 ACS,Note: Only metropolitan statistical areas with a population of at least 50,000 of each racial group are included

Overall, most of the metropolitan areas have a higher proportion of poor black children living in high-poverty neighborhoods compared to other racial groups. The area that does the worst is Detroit, with 61 percent of young black children living in concentrated poverty, followed by Cleveland and Rochester with rates of 52 and 51 percent, respectively.

A few areas do markedly worse for poor young Hispanic children, such as Philadelphia, where over half live in concentrated poverty. Poughkeepsie is an outlier for poor young white children, with over 70 percent living in concentrated poverty.

As seen in the chart below, even young nonpoor children fare badly in many of the areas, with black children once again bearing much of the brunt.


Click image for interactive data points by metropolitan statistical area.

Percentage of Nonpoor Children Under Six Living in High-Poverty Neighborhoods

Source: 2009-2013 ACS,Note: Only metropolitan statistical areas with a population of at least 50,000 of each racial group are included.

The metropolitan areas with the worst numbers for young nonpoor black children are Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Rochester. What is interesting is the large disparity between black and white children in each of these places—while 28 percent of nonpoor black children in Detroit live in high-poverty neighborhoods, only 7 percent of nonpoor white children do.

Why Concentrated Poverty Matters

These statistics are troubling given the enormous body of evidence we have showing the negative neurological effects that poor environments can have on a child’s development, especially in their earliest years.

Racially and economically isolated neighborhoods are correlated with stressful factors for children, such as high crime rates, maternal depression, and family instability. In her book about children growing up in violence-stricken Chicago public housing, Susan Popkin, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, likens the psychological trauma the children face to guerilla war zones in Cambodia or Mozambique. She notes, “even preschool children in the worst developments learn to hit the ground at the sound of gunfire.”

In the first few years of life, children’s brains develop rapidly, forming over 700 new neural connections every second. This period is when the brain is the most malleable and susceptible to change. Breakthrough research led by Dr. Jack Shonkoff at Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child has shown that such repeated environmental stress in a child’s early years is damaging to developing brain architecture, which then can lead to lifelong problems.

Thus, it is no surprise that numerous studies show that children who grow up in concentrated poverty are more likely to be unemployed, to drop out of school, and to have out-of-wedlock pregnancies. By allowing so many of our youngest citizens to grow up in these neighborhoods, we are pulling the rug out from under their feet before they even learn to walk.

Tackling Concentrated Poverty

There is no doubt that government policy is in large part responsible for the creation of these high-poverty neighborhoods. As the New York Times editorial board stated on Sunday, “This [economic isolation] did not happen by accident. It is a direct consequence of federal, state and local housing policies that encourage — indeed, subsidize — racial and economic segregation.”

This means that it will take government policy to ensure that children do not continue to languish in high-poverty neighborhoods.

One example of a program that has had demonstrated success is the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program, which has moved over 2,400 black families from segregated high-poverty city neighborhoods into low-poverty suburbs. More than two-thirds of participants have stayed in their new homes and reported that they feel safer and less stressed, their children are doing better in school, and they are healthier and happier than before. After relocating, one participant stated in an interview with TCF fellow Stefanie DeLuca, “I wouldn’t move from this home until my four-year-old is out of school. This is the house, the neighborhood I want my kids to remember.”

While helping families to escape high-poverty neighborhoods is important, we must also ensure that we stop creating these damaging neighborhoods in the first place. To do this, Jargowsky proposes that every city should ensure that all new housing built reflects the income distribution of the metropolitan area as a whole. This would mean that eventually, every neighborhood would be accessible to the full range of a city’s residents—from the wealthy and middle-class to the poor.

On a large scale, such housing policies are considered by many to be massive, costly, and radical government interventions. But, as Jargowsky points out, exclusionary zoning is already a huge intervention into the housing market. And, as Alexander Polikoff, a long-time civil rights lawyer in Chicago, notes, “A large-scale mobility program may smack of indulgent fantasy…still, history is full of surprises. Truman beat Dewey. The Civil Rights movement ended generations of seemingly impregnable Jim Crow in one decade. Nixon went to China.” Perhaps it is not so farfetched that we can successfully gather the political support to invest in our children’s well-being.

Most importantly, the cost will be much greater if we continue to let so many of our young children, many of them minorities, grow up in our country’s worst neighborhoods. We have already made that choice for decades—it is far past time that we pick a better path.