I know that this week everybody’s attention has been diverted to the Kavanaugh confirmation circus. Have we missed anything important? Before we all move on, I want to draw readers’ attention to one of the more preposterous items to appear in the New York Times this week (I know that’s a low bar). The article appeared on Monday (October 1) with the headline “Detailed New National Maps Show How Neighborhoods Shape Children for Life.” The sub-headline is “Some places lift children out of poverty. Others trap them there. Now cities are trying to do something about the difference.” The reporters are Emily Badger and Quoctrung Bui.
What makes this article preposterous? It’s preposterous because it’s yet another exemplar from the genre of “this time we’re going to do socialism right and finally it’s going to work.” Of course, the word “socialism” itself is not used. But the subject of the article is publicly-subsidized housing for the poor — classic “to each according to his needs” redistributionism. We all know that this sure hasn’t worked so far.
Let’s start with some background so that you will understand where this article fits in. The subject here, public housing, is one of the big progressive ideas about how to raise the poor up from poverty. The official theory began as being that the poor had been kept down because they had been forced to live in places that were crowded and dark and dank. If “we” just give “them” clean new apartments with more light and air, they will thrive! About 80 years into this, it is impossible to miss the disaster that is the New York City Housing Authority — hundreds of buildings no longer clean nor new, and in need of billions of dollars of major repairs. And with the supposed beneficiaries of the handouts, the tenants, trapped in the crumbling buildings, not to mention trapped in poverty. As New York City thrives, NYCHA admits to a poverty rate in its projects in excess of 50%. See extensive prior MC coverage, for example here and here. And believe it or not, NYCHA has been a relative success compared to other big city housing authorities, like those in Chicago and St. Louis, that have ended up dynamiting enormous buildings because they were beyond rescue or repair.
Obviously massive “towers in the park” public housing was not the answer. We were not executing socialism correctly! Enter Section 8 vouchers. Here’s the new idea: Prior public housing has failed because we made the mistake of concentrating the poor people in massive projects where they were isolated and could not mingle with middle-income and successful people to learn the secrets of upward mobility. So now we will pass out vouchers, enabling the poor to rent scattered apartments in better neighborhoods and hobnob with the strivers.
In the case of Section 8 vouchers, we’re now about 40+ years into the effort. How has it gone? From among many harsh reviews, consider this from Alana Semuels in The Atlantic in 2015:
Section 8 was intended to help people escape poverty, but instead it’s trapping them in it . . . . Created by congress in 1974, the ‘Section 8’ Housing Choice Voucher Program was supposed to help families move out of broken urban neighborhoods to places where they could live without the constant threat of violence and their kids could attend good schools. But somewhere along the way, ‘Section 8’ became a colloquialism for housing that is, to many, indistinguishable from the public-housing properties the program was designed to help families escape.
Obviously, once again, this was not a failure of the whole idea of government housing handouts as a way to alleviate poverty, but merely a failure in the details of executing the program. So what we need is a new official diagnosis of the problem. And also obviously, the new official diagnosis must not question the orthodoxy that massive housing subsidies are going to work this time to alleviate the poverty, if only they are done correctly.
Which brings us to this week’s article in Pravda. Exciting news: We have finally found the answer that has eluded us for so long, because now we have trendy professors from fancy schools who have gotten access to “big data”! And the answer is, if we just massively collect and analyze all the census data block by block around the country, we find that there are some places where poor people can be placed where they will then rise up from their poverty, and others (maybe right across the street!) where they will not. Now we know where to send the people. Finally, poverty will be cured. From Pravda:
[There is new] highly detailed research on the economic fortunes of children in nearly every neighborhood in America. The research has shown that where children live matters deeply in whether they prosper as adults. On Monday the Census Bureau, in collaboration with researchers at Harvard and Brown, published nationwide data that will make it possible to pinpoint — down to the census tract, a level relevant to individual families — where children of all backgrounds have the best shot at getting ahead.
So tell us more about this new “highly detailed research.” Yes, it is from super-trendy progressive scholar Raj Chetty — ex-Harvard, now Stanford uber-guru of applying “big data” techniques to solve the problems of poverty and income inequality — and colleagues from fancy politically-correct places like Harvard and Brown. They have collected and organized massive amounts of census data, and have even provided it to the Times in a form that you can handily go through it with an interactive tool.
Well, just to be trouble-makers, let’s try getting up a map of Manhattan Island in the interactive tool, and see what we can learn. Sure enough, the map breaks down the island into small tracts of six or eight or ten or twelve or so square blocks each, and assigns to each a color. Red colors indicate that poor people growing up in this tract will be expected to remain poor as adults; while blue colors indicate that poor people growing up here will be expected to earn much more, and maybe even reach the upper middle class. Sure enough, most of Harlem is some shade of red, while much of the wealthier neighborhoods are some shade of blue. But wait a minute:
How about the eight square blocks bounded by Fifth Avenue, Park Avenue, and East 59th and 63rd Streets? That’s about the very wealthiest enclave in Manhattan, maybe in the world. It has the Pierre and Sherry Netherland Hotels, the Metropolitan Club (J.P. Morgan’s club), and some of the very ritziest Fifth and Park Avenue apartment buildings. But wait — it’s dark red! The legend is: “Children from poor families who grew up in this tract are expected to earn about $22,000 per year in their adult households.” That’s below the poverty line for a family of four. By God, better stay out of that hellhole neighborhood.
OK, let’s try the seven square blocks bounded by Fifth and Sixth Avenues, and West 49th and 56th Streets. You can’t do much better than that tract. For starters, it contains Rockefeller Center. And the Museum of Modern Art, together with the highest-end condo buildings adjacent to that museum. And the former Nelson Rockefeller townhouse. And some of the fanciest Fifth Avenue shopping. But wait — it’s dark red too. The legend: “Children from poor families who grew up in this tract are expected to earn about $11,000 per year in their adult households.” Whoa: That’s not just poverty, it’s “extreme poverty.” What gives?
Better try another spot. How about the fourteen square block tract bounded by Fifth and Park Avenues, and East 49th and 56th Streets. That contains St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Saks Fifth Avenue department store, and another swath of fancy Fifth Avenue shopping. None other than Trump Tower, although not actually in this tract, is directly across the street at East 56th Street and Fifth Avenue. Here’s the legend: “Children from poor families who grew up in this tract are expected to earn about < $1,000 per year in their adult households.” What??? Now we’re talking about third world levels of extreme poverty, literal starvation.
As I hope you have realized by now, these results are ridiculous. What is undoubtedly going on is that there are not enough data points in these small tracts to give statistically-significant results of any kind. The idea that from such data you can draw conclusions as to cause and effect of expected future income for somebody arbitrarily placed here with a housing voucher is completely insane. But then again, this is Pravda.
Back in May 2015 Pravda had a prior article promoting a preliminary version of this Chetty, et al., work, and I wrote a comment titled “Can The Government fix Poverty? Part III.” From that post:
The Times, Chetty, Hendren, et al., are just incapable of understanding that the results that people are able to achieve through their own efforts and striving cannot be duplicated with government handouts. Striving gets you upwardly mobile suburbs and gentrifying urban neighborhoods. Handouts get you Baltimore. No amount of experience, no number of failed programs, will ever enable them to understand this.
Nothing has changed. Maybe at least the current administration has the good sense not to throw buckets of taxpayer cash at these ridiculous ideas.
NOTE TO READERS ON THIS POST: For some reason my internet is not allowing me to insert appropriate links into this post. I will try again tomorrow to insert them.
UPDATE, October 6: Links added! Sorry for the delay.