By Jay Bullock Special to Published Mar 29, 2016 at 1:16 PM Photography: Bobby Tanzilo

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A year ago, I wrote about a study of Milwaukee Public Schools students, a study that sought to answer the urban education equivalent of which came first, the chicken or the egg?

In the case of urban education, the question is: Which has a bigger impact on student performance, the school or the neighborhood?

In the case of that study, the answer was, as so often is the case, nuanced. In any one year, the school effects are larger: put a kid from a bad neighborhood into a good school for a year and that kid will grow more, academically, than a kid from a good neighborhood in a bad school.

But in the long run, the authors suggested, the cumulative negative effects of living in a bad neighborhood for an entire childhood likely outweigh the benefit of being in a good school for any one or two or even three years.

That study, set specifically in Milwaukee, built on decades of research on the effects of moving families out of housing projects and, usually with supplemental housing vouchers, into better neighborhoods. The evidence in those studies is also, as we say, nuanced. But the bulk of the data suggests that being in a better neighborhood, even when a family itself is poor, has short and long-term impacts on poor kids' educational achievement. The effects accumulate to mean better outcomes, socially and financially, after children are out of school.

Two things make those studies nuanced as well. First, the parents applying for those vouchers to leave public housing are not necessarily representative of all poor parents in housing projects. These parents are motivated to seek opportunities for their children, and the children may have demonstrated better educational attainment than their peers regardless of whether they stayed in public housing.

Or, as Justin Wolfers put it in paraphrasing a new study, "the applicants were particularly motivated to protect their children from the negative effects of a bad neighborhood." The difference may be partly, or even mostly, due to better parenting, not a better address.

And, second, those housing voucher studies tended to show decreasing effects depending on the age of the children when they moved. The younger a child is when moving to a better neighborhood, the more likely she is to outpace her peers who didn't move. Older children don't differ dramatically after a move away from the projects.

But recently Chicago has been demolishing housing projects. There's no chance for parents to opt-in to a move when where they were living is simply torn down. This provides a chance for a study that isn't burdened with questions about who participates, since everyone must.

That new study Wolfers referenced specifically looked at those displaced by Chicago's demolition, rather than those opting for an opportunity to move out. And the findings are substantial: "Children displaced by public housing demolition have notably better adult labor market outcomes compared to their non-displaced peers," author Eric Chyn writes. "This positive impact is detectable regardless of the age at which a child’s family relocates."

The policy implications are clear, and there is no nuance left anymore. Economic integration of neighborhoods, rather than the economic segregation that largely exists today, is a key – if not the key – to boosting children's chance of success in school and as adults. Continued economic segregation shuts poor children out of the quintessential American Dream of going from rags to riches. Poor kids in poor neighborhoods stay in rags.

There is another issue left generally unaddressed in these studies, which is that overwhelmingly the participants are African American, and that in America, economic segregation is often de facto racial segregation.

You might recall last year I wrote about a case for reparations to the African American community, eloquently and logically articulated by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic. Though I haven't returned to the subject, Coates hasn't let it drop, and throughout this presidential campaign he's worked to get Sen. Bernie Sanders – the candidate most likely to support the idea – to embrace reparations. Sanders' whole schtick this campaign has been about the economic plight of the poorest Americans, after all; reparations would be a natural fit.

But Sanders has not endorsed reparation. Neither has Hillary Clinton nor any of the Republicans. It is, in electoral calculus, not an issue that's going to win many votes.

Though Coates has said he planned to vote for Sanders, he has been relentless in pushing Sanders, the candidate most consistently addressing economic issues, to talk about race the way he talks about class and economics.

In a long recent piece also at the Atlantic, Coates details why he believes economics and class should not be divorced from race.

One detail in particular struck me, which is that, in Coates' words, "poor white families are less likely to live in poor neighborhoods than nonpoor black families." That is, if you're poor and white, your neighborhood is likely to have poverty levels near the national average. But if you're poor and black, your neighborhood's poverty levels will be double the national average.

It's worse: Middle-class black families are more likely to live in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty than poor white families are. Black families with middle-class incomes live, in the words of sociologist Patrick Sharkey, "in areas with higher crime rates, lower quality schools, higher poverty rates, lower property values and severe racial segregation. Even if blacks are able to make gains in economic or social status in one generation, they often remain in social environments that are disadvantaged across multiple dimensions."

Taken together with Chyn's study, this suggests that not only must we work to make neighborhoods more economically diverse, to eliminate islands of concentrated poverty, but we must also work to end racial segregation, as even economically integrated black neighborhoods suffer disproportionately in contemporary America. This present-day evidence of a long-rigged system strongly supports the idea of something like reparations.

Failing that, this country – and this city, as in many ways Milwaukee is the poster child for latter-day racial and economic segregation – needs to admit that "good jobs" and "better schools" and "no bank too big to fail" are not adequate solutions to the most pervasive challenges of our poor black residents. We cannot keep whitewashing America's racist shame by talking only of class and economics. There's no room left for nuance there, either.

There's still time, before we vote next week, for one or more of the national or local candidates to address this. They probably won't; they have 400 years of inertia behind them, after all. But they should, and the rest of us should make sure this is the last election cycle where they can get away with not.

Jay Bullock Special to
Jay Bullock is a high school English teacher in Milwaukee, columnist for the Bay View Compass, singer-songwriter and occasional improv comedian.