Geographic mobility, concentrated poverty, and relational assets

Thoughts from William Julius Wilson and Megan McArdle.

William Julius Wilson gave a talk at UCLA today. His theme was the interplay between “cultural’ and “structural” explanations for persistent intergenerational disadvantage.

Most interesting thing I learned: the disappointing results of the Moving to Opportunity experiments aren’t as informative as they seemed to be, because the intervention itself was so weak: most of the “experimental” families didn’t move far from where they started, and many of them quickly moved back. Moreover, the linguistic effects on an African-American of having spent his first six or ten years in a segregated neighborhood of concentrated poverty aren’t undone by spending the next six years in a slightly less segregated neighborhood of slightly less concentrated poverty.

On reflection, I’m not sure whether this is encouraging or discouraging. Assume that we believed the original Gattreaux results showing that moving poor black families to middle-class white suburbs greatly improved prospects for their kids. I can see how to do that for a few hundred families, or even a few thousand. But neither whites nor blacks in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York are going to tolerate the idea of massive displacement from the ghettos. What good would it do us to know that growing up in segregated neighborhoods of concentrated poverty is bad for kids if we don’t know how to rescue any substantial number of kids from that fate?

Update Related thoughts from Megan McArdle. What’s called “individual social capital” (what I would prefer to call “relational assets”: roughly speaking, how much you can get other people to do for you other than by buying their services in an impersonal market) is as important as financial capital or human capital in creating decent lives. (In non-poor neighborhoods, relational assets are also highly useful in finding jobs.)

The poorer and less educated you are, the more your relational assets are concentrated where you live. So the recommendation that poor people move out of their neighborhoods, whether from the Ninth Ward of New Orleans or Scranton, PA, means asking them to give up what may be the only substantial assets they have. Note that trans-national migrants usually move to areas that already have residents who come from the same places they come from.

Footnote Second-most-interesting observation from Wilson: for most white residents of high-poverty neighborhoods, residence there is transient. For most black residents of high-poverty neighborhoods, residence there is not only permanent for them but will be passed on to their children. Curiously, Wilson said nothing about Appalachian whites, who would seem to be the obvious comparison group.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: