Moving On: Why Poverty Means You Move More, and Why That Matters

Unpacking poverty characteristics leads, sooner or later, to an exploration of what residential or geographical mobility is all about. Although it’s uncommonly discussed, it turns out to be vitally important — in terms of its impact on children’s educational progress, which is in turn linked to their likelihood of finishing high school or going on to further education, and both of those are linked to economic well-being. In fact, the linkage is so strong that the MacArthur Foundation had this to say about it:

“Moving three or more times in childhood — and especially between ages six and 10 — lowers later earnings by nearly 52 percent.”

I learned about this for the first time a few years ago, in a conversation with Robert Jaklich, at the time the superintendent of Harlandale, one of San Antonio’s highest-hardship school districts. He was talking about how frequently students moved around in the course of a year, because their parents did, and what an impact that had on their education.

I’ve since learned from talking to both educators and social workers that students can move so much that districts literally lose track of them completely. They may be able to follow students through one or two residential moves, but afterwards it’s not uncommon for them just to fall off the map entirely. Are these students still going to school somewhere? In many cases, no one really knows for sure.

So what does “mobility” really mean? Residential or geographic mobility, sometimes also called economic mobility, is phrasing that captures whether the place where you reside now is the same place where you lived last year — or if you’ve moved in the past year, in the past five years, whatever interval is being measured. The Census Bureau asks about it, so there’s data on it.

Because I’ve been working on a comprehensive project mapping San Antonio’s population characteristics that may be associated with poverty, I thought I’d pull the numbers on residential, also known as geographic mobility for the past year. Here’s what it looked like:

(Ignore San Antonio’s large military bases, which understandably have the highest levels of mobility built in because of their unique populations and associated demands.)

It was surprisingly hard to pin down a real norm for residential/geographic past-year mobility, but it seems to be around 12 percent, nationally — according to researchers who’ve authored a publication for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on it.

So taking a closer look at San Antonio’s geographic past-year mobility, and using the sliders on the Tableau map to isolate just those ZIP Codes at 12 percent or lower, this is what we find:

Takeaway? Obviously, the rest are all higher — some by quite a bit.

What do we know about what drives residential mobility? According to researchers who’ve studied the subject, mobility is typically thought to be higher among:

· Low-income households
· Renters
· Younger families

Neighborhoods also differ in how much mobility they experience as well. Rates are higher in neighborhoods where:

· Home ownership rates are low
· Fewer households have children or stable jobs
· Areas that are undergoing change, whether in terms of the built environment or economic trends

(Both those sets of observations are from “Residential Mobility and Neighborhood Change: Real Neighborhoods Under the Microscope,” by Coulton, Theodos & Turner, published in 2012.)


Why residential mobility matters

Most people dread moving, whether home or office, and it’s not unusual to experience it as fairly disruptive, especially in the short run.

But as the MacArthur Foundation has learned in a paper they published last November, the impact on children is especially significant — particularly as it disrupts their schooling. Here are some of their findings:

· A majority of U.S. children move at least once during childhood — and a sizable group moves three or more times.
· Any residential move during childhood is associated with nearly half a year (lack of progress) in school
· Each additional move is associated with small declines in social skills
· Moving three or more times in childhood is associated with lower earnings, fewer work hours, and less educational attainment later in life
· Moving between ages six and 10 is a particularly sensitive time. But any move, whether voluntary or not, is linked to lower educational attainment and lower earnings later in life

Of course, we know from previous work in this series that educational attainment is disturbingly low in San Antonio when compared to the national average — at every level of attainment we looked at, from graduation from ninth grade through graduate degrees. (Certain higher-hardship ZIP Codes have worse metrics than others, of course, but overall the levels are quite low.)

Notably, wage-earning ability is also lower at every level surveyed when compared to the national average. (See the interactive data visualization linked here, the static version of which is pictured below.)

Comparing Education Attainment Levels and Income Earned in San Antonio vs. the U.S. Average, Using Recent U.S. Census Bureau and American Community Survey Data. (Source: Lily Casura)

While it doesn’t seem that San Antonio’s past-year mobility is necessarily much higher than other major U.S. cities in the top 10, for instance, based on a cursory examination of their rates — it is still important to note how high past-year mobility levels affect children’s outcomes in particular, from their educational outcomes to their social and emotional well-being, and how the domino effect of impacting educational attainment early on also limits future earning power.

Sociologist Matthew Desmond, who won the Pulitzer prize for “Evicted,” recently wrote, “concentrated neighborhood disadvantage can have acute negative effects on children’s health, development, and cognitive performance.”

“If you’re moving that much,” says Judy McCormick, the former executive director of San Antonio’s P16 Plus Council of Bexar County, a collective impact nonprofit focused on educational outcomes, “you can start missing those milestones, such as moving by the third grade, which is so important for a student’s chance of graduating high school.” (McCormick’s quote comes from the “Worlds Apart” series written and reported by Melissa Stoeltje, of the San Antonio Express-News.)

Like so many other things we look at when we take a deeper dive into what poverty means in the modern American city, we find compounded issues and effects. Future articles will delve more into what compounded poverty is, and what other issues (like eviction) fuel residential mobility, but for now — ponder for a bit how it may be playing into low educational attainment in especially San Antonio’s highest-hardship ZIP Codes.