It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood? Picturing Poverty and its Effects

“So many communities are eager today to provide equal access and support to disadvantaged children. So many communities are desperate to replace the cradle-to-prison pipeline with a cradle-to-career pipeline--that's what we all are fighting for.”

-       U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, talking about the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative

There is little doubt that the circumstances in which a child is raised have a profound impact on that child’s trajectory in life. We know that access to healthful foods and health services sustain and support children’s physical development. Growing up without fear of physical violence or crime is integral to a child’s social and emotional well-being. Well-maintained properties, businesses, parks, and schools contribute to an environment where children can grow, play, and learn. And as Secretary Duncan’s remarks suggest, these collective circumstances combine and compound—both positively and negatively. Resource-rich neighborhoods use these positive dividends to foster healthy communities which, in turn, support and surround great schools. However, the deficits accrued by neighborhoods that lack these resources compound as well, and their residents are stuck with debts in human and material capital.

Through the work of many dedicated volunteers, DC Action for Children—a DC-based advocacy group that provides data-based analysis and policy leadership on issues facing the area’s child and youth populations—has created a visual representation of the distribution of resources within each of the District’s neighborhoods, and the impact on children’s outcomes. Their interactive neighborhood maps illustrate the disparate availability of resources throughout the nation’s capital. Those of us living in the area know there is a geographic divide running through the district—the overall percentage of children living in poverty within DC is 30 percent, largely concentrated in about one quarter of the city’s neighborhoods which are mostly located to the south of the Anacostia River. In that quarter of neighborhoods, more than half of the children live in poverty. And the population of those neighborhoods, not coincidentally, is overwhelmingly black.

The most compelling data illustrating the compounding effect of these resource deficits are the student reading and mathematics proficiency rates by neighborhood. While Northwest has the lowest child poverty rates and Southeast has the highest, the student achievement rates are a complete inversion. Click on the “Choose a dataset” button on the left of the screen, and view the same stark contrast in numbers of grocery stores; the differences in owner-occupied housing and numbers of vacant lots; the contrasting rates of homicides, assaults, robberies, and sexual abuse. These symptoms of concentrated poverty keep neighborhoods from becoming thriving communities. And lest we forget, the demographic breakdown on the right side of the map reminds us how inequitably these resources are split between the city’s white and black residents.

DC Action for Children’s contribution is not simply illustrating these data—they’ve successfully identified myriad data sources, collected and transformed these data to represent comparable areas (in this case, by neighborhood, as opposed to census tract or by block), and visualized these data with compelling effect. A look at their data and methodology show data culled from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), the DC Department of Human Services, the DC Office of Planning, the American Community Survey, and many more. These organizations are too often separate and distinct from one another, which means that each has limited data and a limited view of the full scope of poverty’s effects on families. These silos are not unique to the District of Columbia—municipalities throughout the country are struggling with the same challenge.

Recognizing this ongoing challenge and the importance of communities in improving children’s well-being, the U.S. Department of Education, through its Promise Neighborhoods program, began awarding one-year grants to communities in 2010 “to significantly improve the educational and developmental outcomes of children and youth in our most distressed communities, and to transform those communities.” To reach this goal, one of the program’s objectives is to determine the relationships between organizations serving these neighborhoods (for example, those from which DC Action compiled data). A recent Urban Institute report recommended that Promise Neighborhoods “collect information that they can use to improve the quality of their programs and services, to evaluate the success of their initiatives, and most importantly, to achieve better results.”

This objective, in part, is what DC Action has accomplished; their data allow us to better understand the complex interactions between challenges affecting the area’s neighborhoods. The picture painted by DC Action’s interactive maps is disheartening, but they begin to show where initiatives are failing, and where we must do better. Continuing to add detail to this picture, understanding the policies and programs targeting the effects of poverty, where they are succeeding, and where they need to be improved, will allow us to deliver on our unfulfilled promise to these neighborhoods.


Lindsey Tepe is a senior policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She is a member of the Learning Technologies project and PreK-12 team, where she focuses primarily on innovation and new technologies in public schools.