Sunday, April 23, 2006

Moving to a Better Life

I remember once reading an economist (I think it was Milton Friedman) point out that World War II, as horrific as it was for so many families, may have actually had one benefit for subsequent generations: It induced many people to move to the United States, where opportunities were greater.

According to today's New York Times (alternate link), a similar phenomenon may be occurring with many victims of Katrina. A brief excerpt:

The exodus took low-income families to areas richer in opportunity....

Given the physics of race and class, there was reason to worry about where they would land. Three-quarters of flood-zone residents were black, and nearly 6 in 10 were living on less than $30,000 a year. Nationally, such families tend to be crowded together in areas long on crime, short on jobs and plagued by inferior schools.

That is not the story of Katrina evacuees. In both Atlanta and Houston, their neighborhoods look much like the region as a whole. Measured against where they had lived in New Orleans, most find that a big step up.

To examine relocation patterns, The Times counted evacuees at elementary schools in metropolitan Atlanta and Houston: 13,000 students at 1,100 schools. Using the schools as proxies for neighborhoods, The Times then analyzed the surrounding Census Bureau tracts.

In both cities, the average evacuee lives in a place extraordinary only for its ordinariness. Neighborhoods where evacuees settled have virtually identical levels of education, employment and homeownership as the surrounding metropolis.

Those areas do have somewhat greater concentrations of minority residents and single mothers, and slightly lower incomes. But they are no more prone to outright poverty.

"It looks a lot better than I would have guessed," said Myron Orfield, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who studies regional inequality. "I would have guessed that Katrina families would have been relocated in tracts much more disadvantaged and more segregated than the region as a whole."

Jesse Rothstein, a Princeton economist, agreed. "These are better neighborhoods than I would have expected," Mr. Rothstein said.

The real contrast for evacuees is with the neighborhoods they have left behind. In the flooded neighborhoods of New Orleans, annual household income was $27,000. In the average evacuee's tract in Atlanta, it is $52,000.

In New Orleans, 42 percent of the neighborhood children were poor. In evacuee tracts in Atlanta, the rate is 12 percent.

In New Orleans, about half the child-rearing families in the flood zones had fathers in their homes. In evacuee tracts in Atlanta, nearly three-quarters do.

"I love New Orleans, don't get me wrong," Ms. Marcell [an evacuee] said. "But I thank God we are in Atlanta."