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Where A Child Grows Up Plays A Major Role In Future Opportunities


If you want to know how a kid is going to do as an adult, look at the neighborhood they grow up in. Schools, safety, access to healthy food - all of it matters. New research shows a big racial divide in almost every major metropolitan area in the United States. Most white children live in neighborhoods with lots of opportunity; most black and Hispanic children live in neighborhoods with low opportunity. And often, these neighborhoods are just a few blocks away from each other. NPR's Pam Fessler went to Albany, N.Y., where the disparity is among the widest in the country.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Drive around the Arbor Hill and West Hill neighborhoods of Albany and you can't help but notice all the boarded-up homes. They have big red signs with large X's slashed across the middle, put there by the fire department.

JONATHAN JONES: A signal to let them know, in case of emergency, that the structure could fall. It's a danger.

FESSLER: Jonathan Jones is Albany's commissioner of recreation, youth and workforce services. He's trying to help turn things around here by pushing more investments into the area, like building a new park with colorful playground equipment on what used to be an empty lot.

JONES: And now we have this open space for our young people. And you can work out there in the back, and the little kids can play in here.

FESSLER: But it's a very small step in what promises to be a major challenge. New data collected by researchers at Brandeis University show that Arbor Hill is one of the lowest-opportunity neighborhoods in the country for kids. A quarter of the buildings are abandoned. Green space is limited. Unemployment and poverty are high. And 97% of the children who live here are black or Hispanic.

JUSTIN GADDY: We keep track of all the shootings - when it was the last shooting happened, how many victims so far in our zone.

FESSLER: Former gang member Justin Gaddy sees the consequences firsthand. He's with an antiviolence group called SNUG, which stands for Should Never Use Guns. A tally on his office wall shows it's been only 14 days since the last shooting here, which happened right near the new park. Gaddy's group is trying to keep neighborhood kids from becoming the next statistic.

GADDY: Some of them, you know, they got just a mother at home with three or four siblings and stuff like that, and the mother has to work. You know, she's by herself, and sometimes these kids are left alone.

FESSLER: So SNUG workers direct them into activities like sports to keep them busy, but recreational outlets here are limited. Even Albany's mayor, Kathy Sheehan, who recently moved to Arbor Hill, knows these neighborhoods aren't the best for kids.

KATHY SHEEHAN: Not necessarily because they aren't safe but because of the message that they send - the message of disinvestment, the message that nobody cares.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, red and green. It's in the middle of December. Do Christmas.


FESSLER: So the city is using the Brandeis research to help guide its response. Among other things, it has new programs for teens. About three dozen are meeting after school, trying to come up with a theme for a party.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Make it a summer party. How about - it'd be a beach party on the inside.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: We could have different lights coming in.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Summer in the winter.

FESSLER: Sounds chaotic, but they're learning how to organize events. They also have internships at local businesses and talk a lot about careers and their futures. Fifteen-year-old Adeja Wright wants to go into marketing. She says the program helps, but the real eye-opener for her came when she attended private school for a year in a wealthier part of town. She says she was one of the few African Americans and only poor girl in her class and was constantly amazed by the things she saw.

ADEJA WRIGHT: I went to my friend's house, and she had floor heaters. I'm like, there's floor heaters? That's a thing? You can heat your floor?

FESSLER: Wright quickly realized that just a few blocks from her home, there was a whole other world.

ADEJA: It's one thing to be like, oh, you know, we don't have enough opportunities. But then to see how many opportunities those people actually have - I'm like, wow, you guys are really fortunate. You're really lucky. And it just made me realize how much people in my community don't have those things.

FESSLER: In fact, the new research, which looks at every U.S. census tract, finds that while the Albany area overall is among the best in the nation when it comes to child opportunity, those opportunities are concentrated in a few select neighborhoods.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) I'm in love with you. Let me hear you whisper that you love me, too.

FESSLER: Seniors come from around the city to a day care program in the basement of a church in Albany's Buckingham Lake area. It's a far cry from Arbor Hill. The church is surrounded by neat, single-family homes. Twenty percent of households here are headed by a single parent, compared to 86% in Arbor Hill. The median income is three times higher, and most of the children are white. Harris Oberlander says the area was a great place to raise his kids because it had so many resources.

HARRIS OBERLANDER: There were Catholic churches and Jewish temples and, you know, all sorts of services. All the outpatient clinics for the local hospitals are lined up along some of the boulevards there.

FESSLER: He said he and his wife also had easy access to grocery stores, good preschool programs and, most importantly, a network of close friends.

OBERLANDER: We literally raised our children with different people babysitting for one another. It's the social fabric of the neighborhood that helped us raise our children.

FESSLER: Oberlander knows how important that is because he works in Albany's poorest neighborhoods, where the social fabric is often frayed. He runs Trinity Alliance, a nonprofit that provides food, medical assistance and other services more readily available on his side of town. Brandeis professor Dolores Acevedo-Garcia says the pattern in Albany can be found across the country.

DOLORES ACEVEDO-GARCIA: In a way that we find very disturbing, we see really vast inequities between black and white children, as well as between white and Hispanic children.

FESSLER: And it's not surprising such disparities exist, but that they're so pervasive and don't seem to be getting better. Acevedo-Garcia says inequities tend to perpetuate themselves. Children from low-opportunity areas face more problems as adults in terms of economic success and health. Life expectancy in Arbor Hill is 7 1/2 years less than in Buckingham Lake.

JONES: Coming up here on your left. I'll stop in front of it, actually.

FESSLER: City Commissioner Jones pulls up to a two-story brick house on the edge of Arbor Hill.

JONES: This red house is my house.

FESSLER: Like the mayor, Jones and his family have moved here and are renovating a once-abandoned building. It's part of the effort to revitalize the area. Albany's not only upgrading parks and offering more activities for kids, but providing grants to turn vacant buildings into affordable housing. It's a long haul, but Jones hopes his children and others growing up here will one day have opportunities much more in line with the rest of the region.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Albany, N.Y.

KING: And just a quick note - the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, one of the funders of the Brandeis research, is a financial supporter of NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.