What Your Childhood Home Says About Your Life Prospects

January 28th 2015

Ashley Nicole Black

Your childhood home shapes your life experiences, how safe you feel, your hobbies, and almost every educational and economic indicator of success. Unfortunately, if you were raised in an impoverished neighborhood, it can be incredibly difficult to get enough opportunities to afford to move to different one.

To use myself as an example, I was raised in a small, middle-class suburb outside of Los Angeles. Growing up there shaped my life: I went to excellent grade schools and got a good education; I always had friends from different racial and ethnic groups and socio-economic backgrounds; I felt safe standing outside my home; I spent summers reading, playing, and learning to swim because we had a library, a pool, a gym, and a park within walking or biking distance of my home; I never saw snow until I was an adult; nor did I experience, or know anyone who was experiencing poverty.

Had my parents purchased a home even a couple of miles away, my entire childhood could have been completely different. In 1987, they were one of the first black families to move into their neighborhood. And there still aren't many others. Only a couple of decades before that, it would have been very common for them to be denied the ability to buy a home in a nice suburb because of their race.

Where You Go To School

Where you live determines if you go to a school that is overcrowded, lacks books, doesn't have any college preparatory classes or extra curricular activities, isn't warm or safe, and has inexperienced teachersor one where you get an education that prepares you for college and the workforce. No matter how smart or hard-working they are, students who went to schools that were so under-resourced that they didn't even have books will have a lot of difficulty competing with students from well-resourced schools.

Your Social Network...Not Just Your Friends, But Maybe Even Your Future Job

The friends you meet in school and in your neighborhood comprise your social network - the contacts that will help you find work and other opportunities. Your neighborhood determines what jobs are even available near you. I once taught a workshop at a high school in a neighborhood where there was very little public transportation, it was unsafe to walk, and had no businesses. I was supposed to be teaching students skills to help them apply for jobs, and I literally never saw a single open business in their decimated neighborhood. Students and their parents had no options to obtain work unless they had a car. But who can afford a car to drive to work in if they don't already have a job? 

Your Diet

Speaking of a lack of businesses, the neighborhood those students lived in didn't have grocery stores. This is not an exaggeration. There were literally no grocery stores. Many people in America live in neighborhoods, called food deserts, where they may have to travel over an hour or more to find healthy food. Not having easy access to good food, changes your quality of life drastically. Working with these students helped me realize how lucky I was to grow up in a neighborhood with so many resources and opportunities. 

Given that upward class mobility is so difficult in this country, and that housing still has such a large effect on quality of life, we shouldn't be gutting the housing protections that we currently have. The Fair Housing Act protects middle-class people of color like my family, but poor families are still segregated into neighborhoods that make it harder for them to succeed. This is an area where we should be expanding protections, not weakening a law that supports the progress we've already made. 
But Protecting Fair Housing Could Get Harder
In 1968, federal legislation called the Fair Housing Act was passed, making it illegal to refuse to sell or rent a home, or refuse to make a mortgage loan, based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or disability. While most neighborhoods are not fully integrated (75 percent of white people and about two-thirds of black people still have segregated social circles), this law has helped curb segregation. The law works, in part, because it has been applied to policies that have the effect of denying access to any protected group, regardless of intention. This is important because, these days, few cities, landowners or developers purposely create discriminatory policies, but policies with neutral or even good intentions may have the unintended result of access inequality. Currently, under the law, you can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development even if the company that is denying you housing access isn't purposely discriminating against you, but has policies that have the effect of denying access as a byproduct of their business policies. 
A case has been brought before the Supreme Court, and the Justices will consider whether or not policies that are not purposely discriminatory but end up having a "disparate impact" on a protected group are illegal under this law. In other words, do we judge housing policies based on intent or results? Some people feel that since so much progress in this area has been made, that we no longer need as many legal protections, and developers or cities should be able to create whatever policies bring in the most money -- even if they have the unintended effect of creating unequal housing access.

If you're interested in learning more about housing inequality check out this article by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I know the title says its about reparations, but its mostly about the long term effects of housing inequality and is an excellent read.