If you’re poor and live in the Capital Region, it’s better to be in Rensselaer County than in Schenectady County or Columbia County. Not only that, the younger you are when you move to Rensselaer, the better you will do on average. Analysts have found children who move at earlier ages are less likely to become single parents, and more likely to go to college and earn more.
Raj Chetty is a Professor in the Economics Department at Harvard University, Co-Director of the Public Economics group at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and Editor of the Journal of Public Economics. He cites two studies, one a "national quasi-experimental" study of 5 million families that moved across counties in the United States: "We find the western suburbs of Chicago rank as among the highest counties in the U.S. in terms of promoting upward mobility. At the other end of the spectrum, the lowest-ranked county in the U.S. is the city of Baltimore."
Albany County is about average for income mobility for children in poor families. It is better than about 54 percent of counties. Comptroller Mike Conners says poverty is the number one challenge here. "We've spent billions of dollars allegedly fighting poverty at the federal state and local level, and the net result in Albany County is that after 30 years, we've increased the number of people at or below the federal poverty guideline by 50 percent. That's failure, any way you measure the results."
Chetty defines the features of counties that are "doing well:" "They're places where low income and high income people are living closer to each other. They tend to be places with better public schools, places with less inequality that is a larger middle-class population, and they also tend to be places with better family structure, more two-parent households and more social cohesiveness, participation in religious and civic organizations and so forth."
The second study Chetty cited is dubbed the "Moving To Opportunity" experiment. "If we're interested in changing upward mobility in the United States, a key factor is childhood exposure to better environments. Greater childhood exposure to better neighborhoods seems to dramatically influence children's chances of moving up the income ladder. Every year you spend living in a better neighborhood increases your chances of success."
Chetty allows that race comes into play, but it's more about location. Places with larger African-American populations carry more negative effects on upward ability, including lack of investment in things like public schools. "We find that when a given family moves to a city like Atlanta, which has a large African-American population, the younger child in that family does worse on average than the older child. Now because race obviously doesn't vary across two kids within the same family, we know that's not just a difference between blacks and whites, we know it's the place that is actually having a negative effect."
But race takes center stage in a Brandeis and Ohio State study that analyzed 2010 census data, boiling it down to a "Child Opportunity Index" that found 60.3 percent of the Capital Region's black children live in "low-opportunity neighborhoods," placing the area LAST on a list 100 of metro areas in the U.S.
Albany County Legislator Merton Simpson touched on the issue during a May "State of Our Community Meeting". "How we can be behind New Orleans after Katrina is something I can't wrap my mind around."
County Comptroller Conners is determined to force change. "These children live in low-opportunity neighborhoods. And that's based upon data that reflects their health, educational, social and economic factors. In Albany County we get areas like Arbor Hill, the South End, West Hill, North Albany; these areas represent a significant challenge over the long haul. The entitlement victimology policies that have been pushed by the United States, New York State and local governments in the last 35 years has not worked. I think we need to try something different. We'll be working with the legislature to come up with a proposal to take 1 percent of our single moms off of welfare. We think that it's a small enough number that it won't be too challenging to the people who like things remaining with the status quo, but it'll be a large enough number that'll make a significant impact in the lives of 75 families."
Conners, measured by Chetty's yardstick, appears to be on the right track. "The moving to opportunity experiment gave subsidized housing vouchers that essentially reduced the cost of renting apartments in better neighborhoods to a randomly selected set of families, and we find that the families who moved with younger children to lower poverty areas end up having much better outcomes for their children, 30 percent earnings gains, in the long run."