Sitting on the front stoop of her apartment building, the peeling paint of a front door behind her and concrete all around, Timantha Gaither says she thinks the whole thing should be knocked to the ground.
“They should raze it and start over,” says the mother of two.
Perhaps surprisingly, it is her sister, Raven Hicks, who has three children of her own and lives in a comfortable suburban home, who defends the Forest Cove apartment complex in the Thomasville Heights neighborhood of Atlanta.
Yes, it’s seedy, she acknowledges. Children on their stoops watch prisoners exercising in the razor-wired federal prison across the street. The whole neighborhood is jammed between an old landfill and the penitentiary. But apartment complexes like Forest Cove are important to ensuring housing for all, Ms. Hicks says.
It is an argument taking place with increasing frequency across the United States, at kitchen tables and in city halls and statehouses: Is it better to move out of low-income neighborhoods like Thomasville Heights or to try to fix them?
Until recently, Atlanta was considering demolishing Forest Cove and closing Thomasville Heights Elementary School – in effect, to destroy the village in order to save its inhabitants. Instead, it’s trying to see if it can’t improve the neighborhood enough to give the dozens of kids playing outside on a recent afternoon a better shot at the future.
There are economists who might tell Ms. Gaither her children would be better off if she called the movers. In 2014, Stanford University economist Raj Chetty nailed down a startling explanation of how American upward mobility works: While low-income adults rarely do better by moving to a better-off neighborhood, their children do. In fact, the longer children are exposed to better economic circumstances, the more they achieve in school and the higher their eventual earnings.
But that finding doesn’t offer comprehensive policy solutions. After all, “it’s impossible to evacuate all of our low-income neighborhoods,” says Wellesley College economist Phillip Levine.
As a result, city officials, community activists, and residents are looking for ways to fix low-income neighborhoods, rather than encourage people to move out.
Now, the research is raising new questions: For example, if living in Thomasville Heights suppresses outcomes, can improving conditions there offer a solution?
Atlanta offers a lens on possible answers. In the South, the odds of upward economic mobility – especially for poor black people – can be more daunting than almost anywhere else in the US.
Only 4 percent of children from Thomasville Heights will ever go from affording pig ear sandwiches at Wyatt’s Country BBQ to the $111 average cover at Bacchanalia, one of the city’s finest eateries, according to Professor Chetty’s research. That compares with 10 percent in a city like Seattle or New York who make that leap from the lowest to the top income quintile.
“The problem with [focusing on moving people out of bad neighborhoods] is that people don’t necessarily want to leave their communities, and the fact is not everyone can move to whatever counties we’ve found lead to better outcomes for kids,” adds Robert Sampson, a Harvard University sociologist who specializes in how neighborhoods affect equality. “That means we have to provide opportunities for people in the places [they] live.”
The effect of place on economic mobility highlights the cultural and racial legacies that disproportionately weigh down kids like those pinballing through Forest Cove.
“The causal effects of place” account for between 50 and 70 percent of the differences in intergenerational mobility, Chetty and Harvard’s Nathaniel Hendren found in a 2015 study.
‘Part of the same “us” ’
Other studies have shown that 1 percent of young white adults in the US are both individually poor and live in a neighborhood with more than 30 percent poverty. For blacks, that number is closer to 20 percent.
“I reject this whole idea of cultural poverty, that [notion of], ‘What’s wrong with those people – why don’t they move from lowest to the middle to the top? It must be something in their culture,’ ” says Ted Ownby, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.
“Any type of explanation that starts to sound like the problem is internal to the group itself just runs into all sorts of historical and ethical objections.
“What that disregards are the deep drawbacks to having people who are not just experiencing the human unhappiness and misery that come from being stuck in the lowest levels of poverty, but also the range of social problems it causes for them and everyone around them,” he adds. “What we have now in the South – and other parts of the country – are people who don’t feel that the poorest places are part of the same community, part of the same place, part of the same ‘us.’ ”
It’s not as if those stuck in the poorest corners of America don’t move – they just don’t tend to move up.
Some Atlanta elementary schools, including Thomasville Heights Elementary, see as much as 40 percent of the school population churn each year as parents struggle to find and retain housing. The result is that, in effect, their kids become grade-school migrants. As with other factors in poor America, a sense of constant dislocation makes it more difficult for students to succeed, studies have found.
Under a new school superintendent, the school district has begun exploring charter school options and implementing strategies that have shown benefits for many poorer students. Longer school days, for instance, reduce their exposure to what can be violent and drama-filled home lives. The school system is also sending one of its star principals to try to break the inertia that has settled in on this hill by a prison.
“You have one of the highest birthrates intersecting with the highest poverty rate in the city; the school is the lowest-performing, and that’s it: You’re stuck,” says Leslie Grant, an Atlanta school board member.
There is research showing that an improving neighborhood can improve the lives of the children in it, economists say. In 2009, the Pew Charitable Trusts reported that kids who stayed in a neighborhood that got progressively better also benefited, increasing earnings by $7,000 per year over those who lived in neighborhoods where poverty rates were entrenched.
In Atlanta, there are no formal initiatives aimed at the problem. But there’s no doubt more attention is being paid as the city’s continued success as a global trade hub sharpens the divide between the richest and the poorest.
‘There are good people up in here’
Tony Jones is one example of how upward mobility works in the real world. The city worker grew up moving from project to project as his mom struggled to pay the bills. Even though he escaped that poverty (he owns a nice house in Forest Park, Ga.), he still returns to visit friends at Forest Cove nearly every day after work.
“This may seem like a bad spot, but there are good people up in here,” he says as dozens of children play on the narrow paths, lighting firecrackers.
While mobility research confirms that moving out pays off for children, studies show that low-income Americans don’t necessarily want to take on debt or move to wealthier neighborhoods and leave family and friends behind. What they want are the same services that better-off locales have.
Across the country, bipartisan ideas are starting to focus on practical, even low-cost, ways to help people by giving more serious and long-term assistance to their neighborhoods. Professor Sampson calls this “affirmative action for neighborhoods.” They range from tax and job credits to stronger code enforcement in an effort to raise living standards.
“The newest and most provocative research about economic mobility shows the importance of place,” agrees Erin Currier, who directs projects on economic mobility at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington.
Under the Obama administration, the federal government has started the Promise Neighborhoods Initiative that puts funds toward directly improving neighborhoods. But Congress funded only a handful of grant recipients, which focus on what some call providing extra “cradle-to-career” services ranging from family to school support – all with the neighborhood as the organizing principle. One of those projects is the Harlem Children’s Zone, where 9 out of 10 students now achieve passing scores on New York’s rigorous Regents tests.
Cities are taking their own steps as well. Charlotte, N.C. – which along with Atlanta is one of the worst cities for bottom-to-top mobility – has begun a long-term community investigation looking into how to solve the riddle. Portland, Ore., where neighborhoods are also deeply segregated, is doing the same.
A house-by-house recovery
As with many such neighborhoods, poverty isn’t endemic to Thomasville Heights. Jeff Stanciel and his wife retired from government service and bought a house here for a song a few years ago. They landscaped and bought themselves an Escalade. Their lime-green ranch overlooks a pretty tree-lined street – though what appears to be a small grove across the street is really an overgrown abandoned house.
Mr. Stanciel is part of a civic group that pushes the city to mow abandoned properties and to seize and raze empty and decrepit homes. The group recently paid for two crisp neighborhood signs – “Welcome to the Thomasville Heights Community” – bordered by landscaping. The community fought to keep a Thumbelina-sized library open. Such efforts played a role in ultimately getting Atlanta Public Schools not to close Thomasville Heights Elementary, but rather invest more in it than almost any other grade school in the city.
The struggle in his neighborhood, Stanciel opines, is to not give up. “Around here, there’s a thin line between living and surviving,” he says.
Slowly, he says, the neighborhood has started coming back, house by house. At Forest Cove, there have also been improvements. A new owner has hired a full-time maintenance crew, which residents say has dramatically improved conditions.
And for “people with five or six kids and no money, where are they supposed to go?” asks resident Anquavious Seals, a father of three. “At least it’s a place to sleep.”
It may be tougher here than in most places to move from the very bottom to the very top, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed notes, but Atlanta does better in moving people into the middle class.
“Nearly 70 percent of Atlanta children in the bottom-income quintile escaped from that group,” Mr. Reed wrote in The Huffington Post, beating out New York, San Francisco, and Boston. “Surely helping a larger percentage of people moderately improve their economic status is a better outcome than significantly helping only a small percentage.”
Is stability the new American dream?
For many Americans, that’s enough. In 2014, according to a Pew survey, 92 percent of Americans said it was more important to be financially stable than to move up – a seven percentage-point increase since 2011.
That holds true here in Thomasville Heights, as well.
“The level they want to get to is to be comfortable, to pay the bills, the food, to keep their places – and that’s a challenge,” says James Booker, a longtime resident and president of the local civic league.
New findings on the role of place in economic outcomes are arriving at an opportune time. As Harvard’s Sampson notes, “Violence is down..., people are moving back to cities, racial segregation is moderating, and immigration has revitalized many neighborhoods across the country.”
All of this, he says, is increasing prospects for racial and class integration in “urban areas that not too long ago were written off or were thought to be dying.”