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What Malcolm Gladwell Gets Wrong About Poverty

In discussing the Hurricane Katrina victims who left New Orleans, Malcolm Gladwell ignores a major factor contributing to modern U.S. poverty.


Malcolm Gladwell’s latest New Yorker piece considers the Hurricane Katrina victims who left New Orleans and what their experiences can teach us about poverty. The reasons people remain stuck in poverty are complex, interconnected, and range from the environmental to the systemic to the personal. Gladwell’s interest in Katrina victims is that the storm created a “natural experiment” that allows us to try to untangle that causal web.

By no choice of their own, thousands of poor New Orleans residents changed their environment. The scholars Gladwell profiled hope that tracking these movers can prove the importance of where you live in escaping poverty.

Get Out of Town

The first study Gladwell cites looked at prisoners released from prison before and after the storm and tracked their new residences. The researcher, David Kirk, found that prisoners who, upon release, returned to New Orleans had a much higher recidivism rate than those who found a new home. This echoes what Bryan Kelley, re-entry manager for the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, said at a recent American Enterprise Institute conference on recidivism: “The sad fact is sometimes their home environment wasn’t a very healthy one, and so we provide a new one for them.” This is an important insight: Reformers need to be aware of the often-harmful social networks that develop in areas of concentrated poverty, work to minimize the segregation, and sometimes, help those in disadvantaged neighborhoods move out.

‘The strongest and most robust predictor [of the level of upward mobility in an area] is the fraction of children with single parents.’

Unfortunately, Gladwell neglects an opportunity to fully inform his readers when discussing his second piece of evidence, the now well-circulated Equality of Opportunity Project from Raj Chetty. Gladwell characterizes the findings with the following:

“The neighborhoods that offer the best opportunities for those at the bottom are racially integrated. They have low levels of inequality, good schools, strong families, and high levels of social capital (for instance, strong civic participation). That’s why moving matters: going to a neighborhood that scores high on those characteristics from one that does not can make a big difference to a family’s prospects.”

That’s all accurate. But it obscures the most important finding of the study with a euphemism (“strong families”) meant to avoid engaging with an idea uncomfortable to some. Chetty’s paper reports that “the strongest and most robust predictor [of the level of upward mobility in an area] is the fraction of children with single parents.” This point may not appeal as much to liberal sensibilities, but any serious conversation of this study, or upward mobility generally, has to begin with the state of the two-parent family in America.

Married Parents Raise Happier, Wealthier Children

Chetty’s study is impressive and popular, but his finding about two parent-families is hardly an outlier. For example, Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution found that four out of five children who started out in the bottom income quintile—but who were raised by married parents—rose out of the bottom quintile as adults. Meanwhile, kids raised in the bottom quintile to never-married parents had a 50 percent chance of remaining at the bottom. And Brad Wilcox of AEI calculated that 32 percent of the increase in income inequality since 1979 can be linked to the decline in stable, married families. Gladwell hardly acknowledges that reality in this essay.

The effects of economic segregation and concentrated poverty are significant in preventing upward mobility, as Gladwell helps document. There are policy approaches that can try to mitigate them. Limiting zoning regulations, allocating relocation vouchers (as my AEI colleague Michael Strain has proposed), and implementing school-choice reforms all might be among the options in tearing down the walls that separate the poor.

But until all participants in the debate recognize the overwhelming importance of having two parents in the home, we’re not going to get very far in improving opportunity.