Detailed maps show where children live matters deeply
By Emily Badger and Quoctrung Bui, New York Times

SEATTLE — The part of this city east of Northgate Mall looks like many of the neighborhoods that surround it, with its modest midcentury homes beneath dogwood and Douglas fir trees.

Whatever distinguishes this place is invisible from the street. But it appears that poor children who grow up here — to a greater degree than children living even a mile away — have good odds of escaping poverty over the course of their lives.

Believing this, officials in the Seattle Housing Authority are offering some families with housing vouchers extra rent money and help to find a home here: between 100th and 115th Streets, east of Meridian, west of 35th Avenue. Officials drew these lines, and boundaries around several other Seattle neighborhoods, using highly detailed research on the economic fortunes of children in nearly every neighborhood in the United States.

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 are 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.

Nationwide, the variation is striking. Children raised in poor families in some neighborhoods of Memphis, Tenn., went on to make just $16,000 a year in their adult households; children from families of similar means living in parts of the Minneapolis suburbs ended up making four times as much.

The local disparities, however, are the most curious, and the most compelling to policymakers. In one of the tracts just north of Seattle’s 115th Street — a place that looks similarly leafy, with access to the same middle school — poor children went on to households earning about $5,000 less per year than children raised in Northgate. They were more likely to be incarcerated and less likely to be employed.

The researchers believe much of this variation is driven by the neighborhoods themselves, not by differences in what brings people to live in them. The more years children spend in a good neighborhood, the greater the benefits they receive. And what matters, the researchers find, is a hyperlocal setting: the environment within about half a mile of a child’s home.

At that scale, these patterns — a refinement of previous research at the county level — have become much less theoretical, and easier to act on.

“That’s exciting and inspiring and daunting in some ways that we’re actually talking about real families, about kids growing up in different neighborhoods based on this data,’’ said Harvard economist Raj Chetty, one of the project’s researchers, along with Nathaniel Hendren at Harvard, John N. Friedman at Brown, and Maggie R. Jones and Sonya R. Porter at the Census Bureau.

The Seattle and King County housing authorities are testing whether they can leverage their voucher programs to move families to where opportunity already exists. In Charlotte, N.C., where poverty is deeper and more widespread, community leaders are hoping to nurse opportunity where it is missing.

In other communities, the researchers envision that this mapping could help identify sites for new Head Start centers, or neighborhoods for “Opportunity Zones’’ created by the 2017 tax law. Children from low-opportunity neighborhoods, they suggest, could merit priority for selective high schools.

For any government program or community grant that targets a specific place, this data proposes a better way to pick those places — one based not on neighborhood poverty levels, but on whether we expect children will escape poverty as adults.

That metric is both more specific and more mysterious. Researchers still do not 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.

“These things are now possible to think about in a different way than you thought about them before,’’ said Greg Russ, head of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, which is also planning to use the data. “Is opportunity a block away? These are the kind of questions we can ask.’’

The answers are based on the adult earnings of 20.5 million children, captured in anonymous, individual-level census and tax data that links each child with his or her parents.

The research offers a time-lapse view of what happened to them: who became a teenage mother, who went to prison, who wound up in the middle class, and who remained trapped in poverty for another generation.