Segregation’s High Cost

“Housing policy is school policy.” That lesson has stuck with me over the years.

In 2001, I was one of the organizers of a land-use  conference — “Nolen in the New Century,” named for pioneer city designer John Nolen — that brought David Rusk to Madison. Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque, was a leading voice in advocating for a metropolitan vision for cities.

In particular, he drew a clear line linking high-poverty neighborhoods and the academic failure of poor kids. And–this was critical–improved performance when poor kids were raised in middle-class neighborhoods.

Rusk’s Cities Without Suburbs, the Congressional Quarterly proclaimed, was “the Bible of the regionalism movement.” A subsequent book, Inside Game/Outside Game, argued that regional land-use and tax  policies were more critical to turning around failing neighborhoods than anti-poverty programs.

As for housing patterns and educational success, he wrote in the Nov. 23, 2001 Isthmus:

Why should you be concerned about concentrated poverty in Madison and Dane County rather than just poverty in general? High poverty neighborhoods breed crime. Property values typically fall in high poverty neighborhoods. However, the greatest impact is on the education of children.

Over the last 35 years, educational research has consistently shown that the greatest factors affecting student outcomes are the income and educational level of a child’s parents followed closely by the same factors for the parents of a child’s classmates. “The educational resources provided by a child’s fellow students,” sociologist James Coleman wrote, “are more important for his achievement than are the resources provided by the school board.”

Skip ahead 16 years. Rusk’s insight has been mightily bolstered by the groundbreaking research of Raj Chetty and other economists now associated with the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality. In  a nutshell, they found that the earlier poor kids moved from high-poverty neighborhoods into middle-class surroundings, the better they fared in life.

This prompted me to argue in an opinion column in the Journal Sentinel,that the hyper-segregation of  Milwaukee’s poor has had a ruinous impact on children and undermined not just the metropolitan economy but the Wisconsin economy. I wrote:

Yet in Milwaukee this research — the concrete finding that expanded housing choice can ameliorate poverty — is largely ignored. My take on why: The poverty discussion in Milwaukee has been stunted by the decades-old battle that pits powerful conservative advocates of school vouchers against the once powerful liberal defenders of public education.

Both sides seem satisfied with keeping the focus on the economically and racially isolated high-poverty neighborhoods. Barely a word is voiced about the social, educational and economic benefits of spreading affordable- and subsidized- rental housing throughout the metro area.

You can find my column here.

Here’s an explanation of why the Chetty research is important.

This is the breakthrough study by Chetty.

And here’s what Rusk wrote in Isthmus.

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