Home > Uncategorized > Can Big Data Help Find a Path Out of Poverty? I’m Dubious But Open to Examining It

Can Big Data Help Find a Path Out of Poverty? I’m Dubious But Open to Examining It

October 2, 2018

An essay by NYTimes Upshot writers Emily Badger and Quoctrung Bui describe the findings of a recently completed study by the Census Bureau that attempts to pinpoint specific neighborhoods where children succeed in moving out of poverty in hopes of identifying the elements in those areas that help children escape poverty. After reading the in depth article, it isn’t at all clear that there is any factor or galaxy of factors that a particular government policy or program can institute that will help lift children out of poverty or help transform a neighborhood that keeps children in poverty into one that enables children to escape poverty. The Upshot writers frame the issue as follows: 

The research has shown that where children live matters deeply in whether they prosper as adults. On Monday the Census Bureau, in collaboration with researchers at Harvard and Brown, published nationwide data that will make it possible to pinpoint — down to the census tract, a level relevant to individual families — where children of all backgrounds have the best shot at getting ahead.

This work, years in the making, seeks to bring the abstract promise of big data to the real lives of children. Across the country, city officials and philanthropists who have dreamed of such a map are planning how to use it. They’re hoping it can help crack open a problem, the persistence of neighborhood disadvantage, that has been resistant to government interventions and good intentions for years.

But at this juncture, it isn’t evident that “cracking the problem” will be easy.

Researchers still don’t understand exactly what leads some neighborhoods to nurture children, although they point to characteristics like more employed adults and two-parent families that are common among such places.Other features like school boundary lines and poverty levels often cited as indicators of good neighborhoods explain only half of the variation here.

So if “…school boundary lines and poverty levels” are NOT indicators of good neighborhoods and employed adults and two-parent families ARE good indicators, maybe policy makers should focus on providing decent paying jobs in impoverished communities and enacting tax policies and anti-poverty programs that encourage two-parent families.

The article also features spiffy interactive maps that illustrate the earnings of children who were raised in various census tracks. Clicking through the maps “proves” what policy makers and legislators already know: there are communities that yield high earners immediately adjacent to communities that yield low earners. After examining the “high earning” and “low earning” communities I am familiar with from my work as an administrator and resident, it is clear that communities populated by college degree generate more high earners. But, as a North Carolina activist notes, these neighborhood differences are not accidental:

In the Charlotte area, Ophelia Garmon-Brown, a longtime family physician, sees in these maps clear traces of where the fewest jobs are, where the high-poverty schools are, where African-American families live.

“You could drive from your home in south Charlotte to your banking job downtown and never see poverty, because we’re so segregated,” said Dr. Garmon-Brown, who grew up poor herself, in Detroit. “In some of this, we have to admit that was intentional.”

The NYTimes writers did not have to go to North Carolina to find places where differences in neighborhoods was the result of intention: exclusionary zoning in the North had the same impact as segregation in the South. Maybe it would be possible to pass legislation that would forbid local zoning ordinances that deny the construction low income housing because of density issues thereby enabling those at or below the poverty level to reside in neighborhoods populated by employed adults and two-parent families. 

Predictably given the neoliberal and libertarian response to poverty, the initial solution advanced to this problem was vouchers. But the study found that vouchers failed in Seattle:

In Seattle, that picture confirmed what housing officials feared — that their voucher holders had long been clustered in neighborhoods offering the least upward mobility.

“It really struck us as, well, we are contributing to this problem, not solving the problem,” said Andrew Lofton, the executive director of the Seattle Housing Authority.

Here the response means offering some of those families more choices in where to live. But that solution won’t help every child, or even many of them. The larger question is how to convert struggling neighborhoods into places where poor children are likely to thrive.

Vouchers are seen as a cheap, easy and fast way to solve a complicated issue that took years to develop. And here’s a question for policy makers, politicians, and voters to consider: if vouchers didn’t work to solve the housing problem, what makes think they will work to solve our public education problems?


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