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The Value of Opportunity

Where you grow up influences how you move on the income ladder.

A group of researchers from Harvard University, led by economist Raj Chetty, gathered data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Internal Revenue Service to create an interactive map showing economic outcomes of those who grew up in these tracts between 1978-1983. A National Public Radio article about this process can be found here.

Not surprisingly, those children who grew up in our neighborhood 1978-1983 are still struggling thirty years later. As our illustration shows, areas shaded in red have less economic mobility, that is, the ability to earn more income than their parents is less likely for children who were growing up here.

In 1990, the median household income (half of the residents lived at or below, the other half lived at or above) was $16,000. Between 2012-2016 it was $22,000.

The poverty rate in 2006-2010 was 39%. 46% were single parents.

72% of the children who grew up in our neighborhood between 1978-1983 stayed in Decatur as young adults. But only 17% stayed in the same neighborhood.

These issues, and others included in the complete report, present us with challenges. As neighbors, our reality is we live in a neighborhood that has been negatively impacted by institutional and market disinvestment. We also have housing and commercial property that has not aged well, nor been able to find reinvestment. Those who could afford to move away did move, and compounded the rate of disinvestment. As our real estate declined in value, we were a new market opportunity for investors rather than owners.

It is difficult to break a cycle of poverty once poverty is dominant. One study revealed that 75% of 1970 high-poverty neighborhoods were still identified as high-poverty neighborhoods in 2010. And the population within poverty neighborhoods (and number of neighborhoods becoming new poverty regions) is increasing.

Clokey Park neighborhood (which is about 3/4th of the census tract) will struggle to overcome the challenges associated with investment and redevelopment in the 21st century. Some of these challenges are due to globalization and the 40+ year shift from manufacturing to services industries. The amount of deferred maintenance and the actual value of real estate renders many upgrades and replacement of utility services (think water service, and electrical, as well as internet) impractical to do with conventional lending practices. Most of our residences need between $20,000 & $30,000 in roofs, wiring, and plumbing improvements, but are currently worth between $5,000 to $28,000.

What is needed will not happen until we bring the value of opportunity back to the neighborhood. The lack of opportunity is evident in our appearance and deferred maintenance. Frankly, it is easier to walk away from a property than to fix it up. But if property improves, and opportunity expands, then it will be easier to fix a property up than to walk away. Those who walk away can afford to lose what little value is evident. Those who cannot afford to lose what little value there is have no other choice.

Our future is not predetermined to consign us to the fate of disinvestment and its offspring. But we need to get the few assets and opportunities already present in our neighborhood working together towards a new future. Just because it is now does not mean it has to be later.

Sure, unfortunately some projects take time. But cleaning up your landscape this fall doesn't require much capital, only time and labor. Painting a chipped door or window frame can make tired look new. Keep the boulevards clean. Show pride of place.

And look out for opportunity. It is looking for places to live.

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