If place matters, why specifically?

Sometimes information raises more questions than it answers.

We were thinking about that today while looking through this impressive New York Times interactive piece about a new study that examines how place affects the income mobility of children. A clip:

The main innovation of the new paper -- part of the Equality of Opportunity Project, involving multiple researchers -- is its focus on children who moved. Doing so allows the economists to ask whether the places themselves actually affect outcomes. The alternative is that, say, Baltimore happens to be home to a large number of children who would struggle no matter where they grew up.
The data suggests otherwise. The easiest way to understand the pattern may be the different effects on siblings, who have so much in common. Younger siblings who moved from a bad area to a better one earned more as adults than their older siblings who were part of the same move. The particular environment of a city really does seem to affect its residents.
The data does not answer the question of whether the factors that distinguish higher-mobility places, like better schools and less economic segregation, are causing the differences -- or are themselves knock-on effects of other, underlying causes. "We still need clarity on that," Mr. Grusky, the Stanford professor, said.

There are a lot of important details beyond that clip, and it's worth reading that article and the accompanying pieces. Here's economist Justin Wolfers arguing that the study "makes the most compelling case to date that good neighborhoods nurture success."

So, we've been poring over the results for the Capital Region and they raise a lot of questions. For example:

+ In the study Rensselaer County provided the biggest boost to kids in low-income households -- +$1,620 in household income at age 26 (compared to an average place). That's much higher than Albany and Saratoga counties (+$980 and +$990), and way more than Schenectady County (-$790, so according to the study, it hurt a child economically to live there). So, what's so different about Rensselaer County compared to the rest of the Capital Region core, especially Albany County which is just across the river and has many similar types of communities?

+ The study also looked at how boys and girls were affected. And again, there are some interesting, and hard to figure, results for this area. One example: The study indicated boys in low-income households got a very large economic boost from living in Albany County ($+3,340) -- while girls in low-income households in the county suffered a relatively large economic penalty ($-1,980). That's a gap of more than $5,000 between the genders, which would seem to indicate something very important was going on. But what?

+ The study looked at kids in households across the economic spectrum, including those at the very top. And again, the results for this area are... hard to figure. For all kids in households in the 99th percentile for income, living in Rensselaer (-$2,390), Saratoga (-$1,110), and Albany (-$1,080) counties all provided an economic penalty for these kids. And Schenectady County provided a small boost (+$40). (Can you imagine parents in Saratoga County being told they should move to Schenectady County to improve their children's economic prospects?)

As the article clip above mentions, the study doesn't indicate what factors are causing the differences. And it was interesting to watch the New York Times itself tumble with the idea that growing up in Manhattan could be somehow be economically bad for rich kids.

So, the results are potentially very interesting. But for the Capital Region, at least, it's frustrating that the results are only at the county and metropolitan level. Because there's a wide range of places within some counties here, even within some municipalities (the city of Albany has census tracts that are separated by more than $50k in median household income). And without that specificity, it's hard to get started sorting out what's making a difference here.

(Thanks, Jason and others)

Earlier on AOA:
+ Comparing Capital Region property tax rates
+ The ___est neighborhoods in the Capital Region

Comments

In sum, it really does take a village to raise a child- to some degree, at least.

They massive disparity of outcomes between poor boys and poor girls in Albany County makes me suspicious of the quality of the data. Make the data sample size is just too small to make comparisons at the county-level.
Unless, of course, there's a more interesting explanation.

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