Where kids live matters

Where low-income children grow up can have a significant impact on their future earnings and success.
Where low-income children grow up can have a significant impact on their future earnings and success.

New research found that where low-income children grow up can have a significant impact on their future earnings and success. Unfortunately, it also found that Sedgwick County is not a good place for income mobility – a problem that local and state leaders need to tackle.

In the 1990s, Congress authorized a large anti-poverty project called Moving to Opportunity. It gave housing vouchers to low-income families so they could move to higher-income neighborhoods, and then researchers compared them with similar families that stayed in the old neighborhoods.

The expectation was that the parents would end up earning more income and the children would do better in school. That didn’t happen.

However, new follow-up research by two Harvard University economists determined that the children who moved to better neighborhoods did significantly better as they got older. And the sooner the children moved, the better they did.

On average, a child who moved before age 13 is earning 30 percent more as an adult than the children who stayed in the old neighborhood. The child also was 30 percent more likely to go to college and less likely to be a single parent.

The results are encouraging, as they indicate paths for escaping generational poverty.

What’s not as encouraging is data on children in Sedgwick County.

According to estimates compiled by the New York Times, low-income children who grow up in Sedgwick County will earn $380 less per year by the time they are age 26 than the national average for low-income children. Sedgwick County boys are worse; they will earn $540 less per year.

What’s particularly striking is how much better low-income children fare in neighboring counties. According to the estimates, poor children in Butler County will earn $1,430 more per year than the national average; Reno County, $1,940 more; Cowley County, $2,290 more; Harvey County, $2,990 more; Sumner County, $3,040 more; and Kingman County, a whopping $5,760 more.

“If you’re poor and live in the Wichita area, it’s better to be in Kingman County than in Butler County or Sedgwick County,” the Times reported.

Most Kansas counties that were analyzed performed better than the national average, though children who grow up in Shawnee County are expected to earn $1,440 less, and children in Wyandotte County will earn $1,760 less.

The researchers identified five factors associated with strong upward mobility, the Times reported: less segregation by income and race, lower levels of income inequality, better schools, lower rates of violent crime, and a larger share of two-parent households.

Some of these factors are beyond the control of state and local leaders and social service agencies. But more work can be done to change housing patterns, reduce crime and improve neighborhood schools.

Sedgwick County can and should do better.

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee