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Can the city block you live on affect how successful you'll be?

May 27, 2016

Can where you live affect how successful you'll be? Though evidence is limited, studies suggest the answer is yes.

Research shows the neighborhood someone lives in can impact many of their personal outcomes. Last year, economists at Harvard suggested poor children who grow up in affluent neighborhoods, with characteristics like better schools, less crime, and larger public budgets, end up earning more money later on than their counterparts who stayed in a poor neighborhood.

But according to researchers at The University of Pennsylvania, a person's chance for success may be determined by something even more narrow than their neighborhood – it could come down to which city block they live on.

For the new study, published in the journal Housing Policy Debate, researchers looked at West Philadelphia, an area largely made up of poor, black families. Even so, poverty, crime, and education levels vary from block to block. They call these "microenvironments."

The study analyzes the outcomes of the ACHIEVEability program, which aims to have participants get a college degree or vocational certificate to break the cycle of poverty. Participants enroll in college, and in exchange they receive subsidized housing.

Researchers followed 84 participants, looking at how many credits they earned during the school year. They found those who lived on blocks with higher poverty and violent crime, and lower education levels were more likely to drop out of college, or took longer to earn credits. There was also a slight correlation between participants who had more educated neighbors doing better in school.

Therese Richmond is a professor of nursing and one of the report’s authors. She says there should be a focus on policies that will improve these “microneighborhoods.” She told The Atlantic:

There is a potential that we can change people’s lives block, by block, by block. The microneighborhood liberates people to say, ‘Hey, we can do something within a small space,’ so it empowers people who live within these environments.

The study has limitations like its small sample size, and the fact that participants may have been more motivated because they were largely working adults and single moms.

But it's a compelling idea to explore.

Earlier this week we kicked off our year-long look at neighborhoods with State of Opportunity's Jennifer Guerra taking us to Kids' Movie Night in BanglaTown, a diverse neighborhood on the border of Hamtramck and Detroit. You can listen to it here.