After their daughter was born, however, the couple decided the neighborhood school’s test scores were low. They couldn’t afford a private school, but the District offered families a chance to enroll their children in other schools through a lottery.
In 2013, with 3-year-old daughter Josie in tow, Martin, 42, and her husband, John Martin, 40, project manager at the Innovation Network, entered the lottery when it was inconvenient to do so.
“You had to do a lottery for each individual school,” Martin, an administrator at the Department of Justice, said. “You have this very young child who hasn’t developed yet, so it’s tough to know what program will be best for them.”
Across the country, what neighborhood a child grows up in can have a profound impact on her future socioeconomic mobility. Even one year spent in a different place can cause a ripple effect on lifetime earnings, according to the Equality of Opportunity Project at Harvard.
Within counties, states and cities, the quality of life can vary by ZIP code.
In Shelby County, Tenn., home to Memphis, ZIP code 38120 has a median household income of $74,375, and three out of five adults hold college degrees. In the adjacent 38122 ZIP code, median household income is $35,449, and 17 percent of adults have college degrees.
The stark income inequality that appears in adjacent ZIP codes affects almost all aspects of the socioeconomic mobility of children, from where they will attend school, to who they will meet, to the availability of public transit.
And if the District of Columbia – the country’s democratic heartbeat – were a state, it would have both the highest income inequality and the highest private school enrollment rates in the country.
Income inequality is measured by something called the Gini coefficient, a ratio from zero to one that measures the distribution of income in a geographic area. An area with a Gini coefficient of zero would have a completely equal distribution of income. A Gini coefficient of one means one person has all the income.
The District of Columbia has an income inequality of 0.532 according to the Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey. That’s higher than the national figure, 0.499.
“When we were looking at private schools in the District, they weren’t very feasible,” Martin said. “They were more expensive than my college.”
Luckily for Josie, she won a spot at Creative Minds International School, a public charter school, where she will enter kindergarten next month.
Nationally, U.S. income inequality ranks 41st out of 141 countries, according to the CIA World Factbook. Lesotho is the least equal, and Sweden is the most equal.
Low income inequality: two red states
Among the 50 states, income inequality varies and shows some relationship with private school enrollment rates, according to an analysis of the U.S. census’ American Community Survey.
The most unequal state, New York, has a Gini coefficient of 0.510 and an above-average private school enrollment rate of 15 percent.
Two of the three most equal states – Utah and Wyoming – have the lowest private school enrollment rates in the country, at 7 percent each.
Alaska is the most equal state in the U.S. according to 2013 census data. Its Gini coefficient is 0.408.
Hawaii, with a Gini coefficient of 0.440 ranks first in private school enrollment at 21 percent but is more equal than the country as a whole.
“For one thing, you have a younger population. The share of senior citizens is about half of what it is nationally,” Weinstein said. “And generally speaking, the older age groups have higher incomes.”
Pam Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah’s Policy Institute, said being the epicenter of the Mormon population makes Utah more likely to have lower levels of income inequality than other states.
Students go to public schools, then go to religious training after school.
“I go by East High School on the way to work, and you see a lot of kids leave for seminary training right across the street,” Perlich said. “The rationale for private school is just not there.”
Perlich said income inequality is, however, on the rise in Utah. This is in part because of demographic shifts and social changes that are happening across the country.
First, more Mormon women are going on missions, Perlich said, and putting off marriage. Second, Utah is becoming increasingly non-Mormon with the emergence of immigrant populations.
Mouhcine Guettabi, assistant professor of economics at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said Alaska’s income equality can be traced to a lack of multi-generational families with lots of wealth. The state’s Gini coefficient is 0.408.
“Being a young state, there hasn’t been as much time for wealth to accumulate as in places like New York,” Guettabi said. “Resource-rich places tend to have a lot of really, really well-paid jobs that don’t have these barriers to entry – like having a master’s degree.”
Guettabi said the ingredients for producing income inequality depend on the state.
In addition, he said the Permanent Fund Dividend that gives Alaska residents about $1,000 to $2,000 in mining and oil money annually serves as a buffer against income inequality. Finally, many older people move away from Alaska because it has the highest health-care costs in the country. (The Kaiser Family Foundation ranks Alaska second in per-capita health-care costs, behind Massachusetts). And the weather is not the best.
‘No matter what ZIP code’
In the District of Columbia, neighborhood school quality often depends on where a student lives.
In Northwest D.C.’s 20008 ZIP code, roughly 73 percent of students in grades 1-12 are enrolled in private school, even though it has what most residents view as some of the city’s best public schools. Private school enrollment rates are sixth-highest in the country. The median household income in 20008 is $100,953, almost twice the national average of $53,046.
Debby Goldberg, vice president of housing and special projects at the National Fair Housing Alliance, said where people grow up and what resources exist in their neighborhoods make a significant impact on their socioeconomic mobility.
“Where you live determines where your kids will go to school, whether you have access to a grocery store that sells healthy food, whether you’re exposed to crime and violence, or whether you’re near sources of pollution,” Goldberg said. “As our country becomes more diverse, it becomes all that much more important that we don’t constrict the opportunity that is available to people.”
Obama administration pushes housing diversity
The Department of Housing and Urban Development published a final rule, “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing,” July 8, calling on affluent communities across the country to promote economically diverse neighborhoods.
The rule comes on the heels of a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling in a Texas case that claims of disparate housing can be made under the Fair Housing Act. The ruling means more affluent communities will need to integrate affordable housing into their neighborhoods.
“This rule is about expanding access to opportunity and making sure your ZIP code – where you live – does not determine what you can do,” Goldberg said.
Both the rule and the ruling could affect how ZIP codes affect access to jobs, schools, social networks and transportation.
Kate Walz, director of housing justice at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law in Chicago, said the rule aims to improve racial integration in so-called communities of opportunity. In urban areas, communities of opportunity offer convenient transit access, lower crime levels and more jobs.
“I think that with Baltimore, Ferguson, Charleston … with all of these cases, people have been saying, we must draw the connection to our history of racism and racial segregation,” Walz said. “That’s where the conversation needs to begin.”
Walz said that in the Chicago area, battles continue over developing mixed-income affordable housing. She said that affordable housing in suburban municipalities is often limited to senior citizens.
The city of Aurora, Ill., resisted an affordable housing development after demolishing the Jericho Circle public housing project – home to 22 percent of the city’s affordable housing units – in 2012. Walz said HUD issued a letter to Aurora finding the municipality in violation of fair housing laws for not constructing affordable units after the destruction of Jericho Circle.
Walz said some of the resistance to affordable housing comes from coded racial language, particularly in Illinois.
“If there’s even one word about it being family housing – in Illinois – inevitably what we have heard time and again is you’ll attract these CHA families,” Walz said, referring to the Chicago Housing Authority.
But as the struggle for economically diverse neighborhoods continues from state to state and city to city, the degrees of income inequality can vary significantly.
While the call for mixed-income communities comes to municipalities from the federal government, some schools are bringing students together from across neighborhood boundaries.
Charting a new path
Living in Mount Vernon Triangle near downtown, Martin enjoys the opportunity her daughter has to interact with Chinese immigrant families in their neighborhood as well as African-American families in nearby Shaw.
“Six, seven years ago, it used to just be all parking lots,” Martin said. “I love my neighborhood. You will find me living here in 30 years. I am not leaving.”
At Creative Minds International School, Josie will have the opportunity for language immersion and an arts-based curriculum.
The District has revised its lottery for both charter and public schools – families need apply just once and can list up to 12 schools. The capital has among the highest enrollments in both charter and private schools compared to other U.S. cities.
Martin said she dislikes the tension between charter school parents and traditional public school parents.
“It kind of feels like traditional school parents and charter school parents are at war with each other,” Martin said. “We’d be so much stronger as education advocates working together.”
One of the most frustrating aspects for Martin: the commute. She lives 30 minutes by car from Creative Minds International.
Naomi Rubin DeVeaux, deputy director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said that this is one advantage of charter schools: It does not matter in which ZIP code a child lives. She said a child from a low-income family in Ward 8 has as equal a chance to enroll in a charter school as a high-income family in Ward 3.
Students can now apply from anywhere in the District to nearly all public schools and all charter schools through the My School D.C. lottery. In the 2012-13 school year, 42 percent of D.C. public school students were enrolled in charter schools.
The ability for families to enroll their child anywhere in the District away from their neighborhood school erodes what Goldberg describes as disadvantage ZIP codes play in determining opportunity for students.
In the District, most public schools draw students who live within a mile of the school. In contrast, charter school students live between 1 and 3 miles from school.
BASIS D.C., a charter school in downtown, draws students not only from multiple ZIP codes, but also from each D.C. quadrant. Other charters more closely resemble neighborhood schools.
“We feel we are having this success in drawing students from every ward in the District of Columbia because we are centrally located,” Alice Randall, director of external and community relations at BASIS, said. “We have three major Metro station within walking distance. And many of the bus routes run through this area.”
Randall said that some parents work downtown near the school. In addition, the school’s push for an internationally competitive curriculum makes it worthwhile for parents to make the commute from far corners of the District.
Reach Matthew J. Connor at [email protected] or 202-408-1494. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
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