STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Where you grow up can have a big impact on your future. Here's why.

Jalin, Valencia and Irmitha Pitchford in front of their new home in Wyandotte.
Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio
The Pitchfords moved from a low-income neighborhood to one with more opportunity.

For a long time, parents were seen as the key factor to a child’s success, and longtime State of Opportunity listeners know there are a number of things parents can do to help their children get ahead. But even the most well-intentioned parent will tell you: It's hard to parent when you live in a neighborhood that's not safe.


When I first met Jalin Pitchford, he lived in Taylor, outside Detroit, in a low-income apartment complex with his parents and baby sister, Valencia. Jalin's mom, Irmitha Pitchford, says things were okay when they first moved to the area, "but as things started to get a little rough, you know, more people that didn't value things like they should started to move in, the neighborhood got pretty bad."


Pitchford says hardly a week would go by when she wouldn't see police cars outside the complex, and after a shooting at the "kids" playground, she stopped allowing Jalin to play there. She knew she had to get out of their neighborhood. So she and her husband worked hard and saved their money for a down payment. They bought a tidy brick house in nearby Wyandotte.


Now, Wyandotte is just eight miles from where they used to live, but in Jalin’s eyes, it’s a whole different world. "It's fun 'cause everybody can go anywhere to play," says Jalin. "They can do ... like, it's not no shootings or nothing like that, or fights. It's just everyone here takes pride in their neighborhood."


And the statistics bear it out. According to city data, Jalin's new neighborhoodis better than his old one by pretty much every measure -- academic achievement, safety, and income, among others.


Intuitively we know that neighborhoods matter, right? The Jeffersonsknew it when they moved to the upper east side; the Fresh Prince of Bel Air's parents knew it when they sent him to sunny California; you probably knew it when you looked for a place to live. I know I thought about it.


And now there’s research to back it up.


The New York Times' The Upshot has a handy rundown of the current research out of Harvard on why neighborhoods matter. The takeaway: The earlier a child moves to a good neighborhood, the better their long-term outcomes will be, including how much they earn and whether they attend college.


Their findings are clear: The earlier a family moved to a good neighborhood, the better the children’s long-run outcomes. The effects are symmetric, too, with each extra year in a worse neighborhood leading to worse long-run outcomes. Most important, they find that each extra year of childhood exposure yields roughly the same change in longer-run outcomes, but that beyond age 23, further exposure has no effect. That is, what matters is not just the quality of your neighborhood, but also the number of childhood years that you are exposed to it.


Neighborhood effects also extend to parents. The Moving to Opportunity study from the 1990s was a randomized, controlled study that looked at families moving from public housing -- some won vouchers to move to better neighborhoods, some didn't. The study showed that parents who moved to lower-poverty neighborhoods experienced an improvement in mental health, some aspects of physical health, and perceived safety.


Mary Cunningham is a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, where she studies housing and neighborhoods. She says for so long, the question has been: Which matters more, families or neighborhoods? She says that question is no longer valid because they both matter so much and are connected in so many ways. "Think," she says, about how "living in a bad neighborhood ... can affect your ability to parent. If you're a mom and you're really stressed out about the crime in the neighborhood, about your particular unit and the quality of it -- all of that matters to being a good mom."


Cunningham says, in terms of public policy, it’s important to focus on neighborhoods; to help improve the neighborhoods where people already live, or help them move into better ones.


Jalin's mom, Irmitha Pitchford, doesn't need a study to tell her how much neighborhoods matter. She's lived it. "If you don't feel safe or you're constantly in a place where there is turmoil and trouble, you'll turn to turmoil and trouble and then you'll mess up your chances of having a better life for yourself or your family," she explains. "It takes a village, and I'd rather be in a more positive village than a negative village."

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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