Where I’m Coming From

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On Monday the New York Times published this tool on its website which allows you to see the predicted average annual earnings of a child raised in any given census tract in the United States:

[T]he Census Bureau, in collaboration with researchers at Harvard and Brown, published nationwide data that will make it possible to pinpoint — down to the census tract, a level relevant to individual families — where children of all backgrounds have the best shot at getting ahead.

This work, years in the making, seeks to bring the abstract promise of big data to the real lives of children. Across the country, city officials and philanthropists who have dreamed of such a map are planning how to use it. They’re hoping it can help crack open a problem, the persistence of neighborhood disadvantage, that has been resistant to government interventions and good intentions for years.

I plugged in my old zip code and found that poor kids growing up in my area of Prospect Heights, Illinois are expected to make $34,000 a year on average by the time they’re in their mid-thirties. In all honesty, I don’t make anywhere near as much as that (though I came pretty close during a summer job back in my college days). But then again, I’m a writer — or trying to be one, professionally speaking — and I’ve always said that, if I could make anywhere around $30,000 a year from doing what I do, I’d be a very happy man. (Someday soon, I hope–not for my sake, but for the sake of those around me; to make them not worry about me so much, and to be of some use to them.)

For anybody who wants to know the kind of place I come from, plugging in my old zip code, 60070, paints a pretty good picture. Our apartment(s) was in the yellow-green area just south of Palwaukee Airport. I grew up in an island of relative poverty and uncertainty surrounded by a sea of relative wealth and well-being, but I consider myself lucky for it — though maybe not as lucky as I would’ve been had I grown up with all that wealth and safety. Still, those were formative years, and the conditions I saw around me and the pain I struggled through, my contact with people and kids from different races, ethnicities and income levels, helped formed who I am, how I see myself, and how I view the world. In many ways, those hardships and my experiences with such diversity during my boyhood is why I write; it gave me the emotional and mental material to write.

The Times columnist David Leonhardt, commenting on the Census study, shines a light on the second biggest predictor of a child’s future income, behind household income:

All else being equal — income, race, educational outcomes — children who grow up in neighborhoods with fewer two-parent families fare notably worse.

I want to highlight this result because I think that my half of the political spectrum — the left half — too often dismisses the importance of family structure. Partly out of a worthy desire to celebrate the heroism of single parents, progressives too often downplay family structure. Social science is usually messy, with correlation and causation difficult to separate. But the evidence, when viewed objectively, points strongly to the value of two-parent households (and, no, the parents don’t need to be heterosexual).

For one thing, households with only one parent simply earn less income, because they have fewer potential workers. For another, even after taking income into account, children from single-parent families do modestly worse than those from two-parent families. (Conservatives sometimes make the mistake of exaggerating this point.) Finally, as this new study found, neighborhoods with a lot of single-parent families tend to be less healthy places for all children.

I was raised in a single-parent home, as were most of the kids I grew up with. And as with most of the kids I grew up with, my only parent was my mother, who left my father (and the city) the summer I started third grade. What made my experience a tad more unique was that my mom worked the graveyard shift at a warehouse, meaning she wasn’t home at the night and slept for much of the day. Suffice it to say, I didn’t have a lot of guidance growing up: Besides there being only one of her, my mom was either working, trying to get enough sleep, or worrying about how she was going to cover the bills and buy groceries and pay for whatever me, my little brother and my littler sister needed (or wanted) — and she couldn’t always make ends meet. She was usually tired — mentally, physically, emotionally — and didn’t have the time or the mental space and energy to give each of her kids the care and attention they needed to become their best selves.

I spent a lot of years blaming her (and my dad) for everything I lacked as a kid, but looking back now, Mom was a goddamn miracle worker, my knight in rusted-out armor. I don’t know how she managed to do what she did, or how she did it for so long; all I do know is that there’s no way I could’ve done it: I’m just not that strong, not in that way.

The good news is that all these factors are, at worst, only obstacles to a child’s future health, happiness and success. Some of the kids I grew up with, who had the same situations at home as I did, have grown up and made something of themselves, as well as earning well over that $34,000-a-year benchmark. They went to (and graduated from) college, got into interesting well-paid careers, have traveled the world, gotten married, had a kid or two, and now live blissful middle-class lives — true success stories. My own wife, who not only grew up in a census tract with the same exact predicted income as mine but also had the added struggle of being an undocumented immigrant till I married her, now makes several times that amount. She’s been very lucky, for sure, but she’s also worked incredibly hard and made more than her share of painful sacrifices.

What I mean to say, and what I especially want to tell a boy or girl like I was who might read this, is that where you come from isn’t the final authority on where you’ll end up. The world is a very big place, and life is very long. A lot can happen to you — but you have to make it happen. It’s about the work. Yeah, it sucks that some people are born into an easy situation, where they don’t have to do much work to get to where they want to go, but oh well. Goodie for them. That’s their lives; your life is your own. And you can waste a lot of time complaining about what you didn’t have as a kid, what your childhood could’ve been like had your parents stayed together, what your life would be like now had you grown up rich in a two-parent home. Or you can just start living your life.

The choice is as clear as the terrible reality these maps reveal.


Featured image: The author, circa 1986

Hector is the founder and editor of MANO as well as the host of the LATINISH podcast. A Chicagoan living in Las Vegas, he's also the senior editor of Latino Rebels, part of Futuro Media, as well as a former managing editor of Gozamos, an art-activism site based in his home town. He was a columnist at RedEye, a Tribune-owned daily geared toward millennials. His work has been mentioned by The New Yorker, Good Morning America, TIME, the Washington Post, and other outlets, and his writing was featured in 'Ricanstruction, 'a comic book anthology whose proceeds went toward recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. He studied history at the University of Illinois-Chicago where his concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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