Monday, May 11, 2015

Mr. Rogers' solution to urban poverty

Remember Mr. Rogers?  My kids would sit in rapt attention watching his show on public television.  For some reason, his soothing voice and always-nice patter drove adults crazy, much like the purple dinosaur that succeeded him as toddler favorite.  The theme song for the show, It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, might well describe the Rochester, NY suburb in which I now live. 

Nice neighborhoods create a terrific environment for kids.  Growing up, my brothers and I went to good schools, had a strong family culture and always felt safe.  Eighty-six percent of my high school graduating class went on to college. 

Last week, NPR reported on a study by a Harvard University team, led by Professor Raj Chetty.  Titled the “Moving to Opportunity Study (MOS)”, the team reports on new data about neighborhoods and how they affect economic prospects.   This study was a follow up to the Equality of Opportunity Project, a study that examined the factors leading to equality of opportunity in the 50 largest cities in the U.S.  Their conclusion, which I first discussed in a blog post in February 2104 (Confessionsof a Former Yuppie), was that cities with less segregation, more stable families and better education tended to have greater social mobility.

The MOS dug deeper.  In the 1990’s, the federal Department of Housing and Development (HUD) provided vouchers to 4600 families in poor neighborhoods that enabled them to move to better neighborhoods.  A follow up by HUD, reported by the National Bureau of Economics after 10 to 15 years, found improved health among those who moved to better neighborhoods.  However, their economic prospects hadn’t improved.

But, the Harvard team found that, after 20 years, the children of those families were performing better in measures of economic self-sufficiency.  For example, they were 30% more likely to have gone to college and their annual incomes were 30% higher than their peers in the neighborhoods they had left behind. 

Further, the study validated that the earlier a child moved out of poor neighborhoods, the better they did.  “Every year matters,” avers Dr. Chetty.

This study tracks with other studies done at both Princeton and Stanford, reported by CityLab last year.  It seems clear, or perhaps intuitive, that one’s surroundings affect behavior, values and other attributes leading to economic well-being. 

Perhaps that’s what made me think of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.  It was a positive environment that emphasized emotional development, self-worth, values and the behaviors that contribute to well-being.

Even in poor neighborhoods, there are attributes of households that lead to success.  As I discussed in a post in March of last year (Movin’ on Up: How George JeffersonSucceeded), a study – the Early Childhood LongitudinalStudy (ECLS) – attributed success to the level of the mother’s education, the number of books in the household and two parent families, among many other factors.  Black children underperformed all others but if one controls for the other factors, black children performed as well as their white and Asian peers. 

In other words, there was no difference in the performance of white and black children from two parent families with a well-educated mother and a home full of books.

Those in government and the non-profit community concerned with social welfare and income inequality would do well to consider these data when formulating solutions.  It is unlikely that a one-size-fits-all central planning approach to these challenges will succeed.  As a friend of mine, Germaine Smith-Baugh, CEO of the Urban League of Broward County, puts it:  “Give me a family and I’ll give you a block.  Give me a block and I’ll give you a neighborhood.  Give me a neighborhood and I’ll give you a community.”

Mr. Rogers would have agreed.



  1. I just finished reading a book titled Helping without Hurting by Corbert & Fikkert. It’s a book about poverty alleviation by men who spent their entire career working in the mission field. It’s a decidedly Christian perspective but the principles support your article’s theme. Poverty is not about material wealth. It’s about the lack of dignity, self-worth and good relationships. A strong community fosters positive attitudes and hope. We succeed when we believe we can succeed and when the community is willing to provide opportunity.
    Mom grew up in the depression but she didn’t think of herself as poor. She said they didn’t have money but nobody else did either. What they did have was pride and self-worth. They took good care of what they did have, they saw value in hard work and doing the right thing. -- Chris Calia

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