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  • The Journal Gazette

Sunday, October 07, 2018 1:00 am

Census: Location influences outcome

Where people grew up affects earnings as adults

RON SHAWGO | The Journal Gazette

They are divided by a river and a railroad track, but Fort Wayne's near east-side neighborhoods are worlds apart when considering a child's chance at a good future.

As an adult, a child from a poor family that lived just south of the Maumee River off North Anthony Boulevard is expected to earn less than half that of a poor child living a mile north.

In the same two neighborhoods, 44 percent of girls from poor families south of the river gave birth between ages 13 and 19, while 26 percent did on the north side, where incarceration rates are also lower.

Where children grow up can affect their future, even if they come from families with similar incomes and living in nearby neighborhoods, according to a new project from the U.S. Census Bureau in collaboration with Raj Chetty and Nathan Hendren at Harvard University and John Friedman at Brown University.

Simply moving at birth to an above-average mobility neighborhood in the same county would increase a poor child's lifetime earnings by about $200,000, according to the study.

The data are contained in an online interactive map called the “Opportunity Atlas.” The project, at, uses data stripped of personal information on 20 million Americans born between 1978 and 1983. Those people, now in their mid-30s, were mapped back to the neighborhoods in which they grew up. Their average outcomes in adulthood, such as yearly earnings, were then calculated for each of those neighborhoods.

Individuals who moved several times as an adult are included in data for their childhood neighborhood, actual census tracts containing about 4,000 people each.

For example, children from low-income families living just south of the Maumee River had average household incomes of $19,000 as adults in 2015. North of the river, past Lake Avenue, the average was $40,000 for an adult with a similar upbringing.

It's not only rivers that divide. Take Calhoun Street from East Rudisill Boulevard south to East Paulding Road. Children from low-income families who lived in the census tract to the west of Calhoun had average incomes of $33,000 in 2015. For those on the east side, incomes averaged $24,000, according to the data.

Many Allen County children who grew up poor in rural areas have adult incomes that match those in Fort Wayne's suburbs to the north and northeast. And they are more likely to stay where they grew up. Two large rural tracts in the northeast corner of the county have the largest youth retention rates. Two of five children in the tract containing Harlan stayed as adults, while about one in three in the tract containing Woodburn remained. Countywide, only 18 percent of children stayed in the same tract.

The data come with a caution.

Some tracts have seen dramatic changes since the 1970s and '80s when those studied lived there. For example, Parkview Field and other construction replaced many homes downtown. Thirty-five years ago, no one lived in large sections of what are now developed parts of Fort Wayne, said Rachel Blakeman, director of the Community Research Institute at Purdue University Fort Wayne.

“What I would be cautious about is looking to those neighborhoods today as to what their outcomes will be 35 years from now,” she said. “But rather, what is it that we can learn from those neighborhoods 35 years ago that have played well for the people who lived there?”

While the data “come with a lag,” the researchers found places that produced good outcomes for children in the past tend to produce good outcomes a decade later.

The researchers found that “children whose families who were randomly offered a voucher to move to a neighborhood that had higher rates of upward mobility according to the Atlas indeed earned more in adulthood.” But moving is not necessarily the best solution, they said. Duplicating successes in places that produce good outcomes for low-income children is another option.

They found no correlation between low-income children's earnings in adulthood and job growth rates. Growing up around people with jobs is apparently more important than proximity to jobs, they found.

Charlotte, North Carolina, officials plan to use the data to analyze local initiatives on affordable housing, early childhood education and other efforts, the Charlotte Observer reported last week.

The New York Times reported the researchers envision the mapping could identify sites for new Head Start centers or places for “Opportunity Zones,” with tax incentives available to those who invest in certain projects in those areas.

“I would anticipate there would be social service agencies that would want to look at this,” Blakeman said. “But again, I would caution against using it as a method to align resources with specific geographies. I would want to use more recent data.”

David Nicole, president and CEO of United Way of Allen County, said he hasn't had time to explore the dataset, which he called “complex” and “significant.” It should be used in conjunction with other recent reports such as St. Joseph Community Health Foundation's “Vulnerable Populations Study” released last month, he added.

“The key behind using it effectively is coming up with the right questions to ask,” he said. 

“I do think one of the important things is, this is one piece of data and building something off of just what you learn on the Opportunity Atlas is not the way to do it,” Nicole said.

“We've got to take other pieces of data and make sure we're building with the community, not to or for... Neighborhoods are complex and the issues we are facing are complex.”