06 December 2010

Sun Valley Considered

Tina Griego at the Denver Post is doing a three part series on Denver's Sun Valley neighborhood, that started on Sunday, continues today, and will conclude tomorrow.

The Poorest Neighborhood in Colorado

Sun Valley is a pocket of at least 1,300 people, nearly all of whom live in public housing. This is not just a poor neighborhood. It is, by far, the state's poorest. . . . The median annual household income in the projects is about $8,000, less than 20 percent of Denver's. In Decatur Place, the average annual family income is just $4,400. . . .

More than half of Sun Valley residents are 18 and younger, and most are toddlers and elementary school kids. No other neighborhood in the city comes close to this ratio of child to adult. Of the 324 households in Sun Valley Homes, 43 are headed by two parents. Almost 85 percent of the rest are headed by single women. In Decatur Place, 89 of the 96 single parents are women. Two years ago, nearly seven of 10 births in the neighborhood were to single moms, compared with 28 percent citywide. . . . They are children of young mothers. About 15 percent of those births were to teen moms, 50 percent higher than the city as a whole. They are children of parents who do not finish school. Census data from 2000 — old, but consistent — showed nearly 57 percent of residents 25 and older have less than a 12th-grade education, compared with 21 percent.

The vast majority of residents are Latino or African-American - 59 out of 950 people living in the public housing project called Sun Valley Homes project are Anglo. Another non-profit run transitional housing apartment building called Decatur Place has 245 residents. Of the twenty-seven single family homes in the neighborhood, five are vacant and ten are rentals.

A significant subset of the residents of Sun Valley are refugees from places like Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan. Many are disabled. Most residents stay fewer than four years and move on. Fewer than 10% of residents live in something other than subsidized housing. A large share of residents don't have cars, access to transit will continue to be iffy until a light rail stop opens near the neighborhood in 2013, and there are few shops within walking distance of the neighborhood surrounded by industrial uses. Sun Valley is isolated and largely forgotten as the last of the old style public housing complexes. Sun Valley is consistently at the top of the crime rate charts by neighborhood for Denver, although crime has declined here as it has in the rest of the city.

It is residents have a dismal existence by many measures, and yet there is a one to two year waiting list to live there. There may be no other neighborhood in the state with such concentrated poverty, but surely, there are many people in Colorado who are just as poor who live in worse conditions.

There are a host of programs for poor single mothers in Sun Valley, there is an elementary school that serves the neighborhood with a principal who is committed to recognize that in these kids, poor academic performance frequently flows from a childhood full of domestic violence, neighborhood violence, traumatic police intervention, and lack of money, rather than learning disabilities.

Griego reports that the houses themselves are nicer than one would expect for the poorest neighborhood in the state, and that the neighborhood is oddly quiet for one so full of residents who are financially distressed and one in which there is so much turnover. Yet, this is clearly a NIMBY land use and always has been in the more than thirty years that it has operated as it does now, and the nearly ninety years that it has been home to some sort of public housing. In this residential neighborhood, the industrial users complain about the residential neighborhoods, instead of the other way around.

Where Are The Fathers?

The two low income housing complexes have at least 328 absent fathers (really more, since some single mothers there have children from more than one father). The story offers only one anecdotal glimpse of what happened to all those fathers who aren't there:

A 27-year-old named Jolena Casias moved in to Sun Valley Homes two years ago. She'd been in transitional housing before that, a shelter before that, with relatives before that, in foster care before that.

Her mom, she says with a shrug, "was never interested in being a mom." Jolena has four kids, three by a man who started having sex with her when she was 14. He was 22. She dropped out of school and later earned her GED and a certificate to be a medical clerical worker.

"I wanted kids," she tells me during her lunch break. She's working full time for minimum wage at a home-health agency. "I didn't feel anyone would love me, and they would love me.

Would having fathers there help? Maybe. But, many of these mothers seem to have left relationships with men who abused them, or are incarcerated, or had their parental rights terminated for neglect or abuse, or have substance abuse problems, or are unemployed themselves. Nationally, domestic violence is a major factor in homelessness and poverty for women and children (also here).

It is hard to tell how many of these mothers are single because the fathers of their children were worthless or trouble, and how many are single because of incentives created by the social services system and the indifference of boyfriend who could have supported them. Most fathers seem uninvolved and seem to be providing little support.

Yet, there isn't a visible community of destitute young fathers out there, aside from our jails and prisons, where young men who are fathers to children in public housing projects survive on government support alone.

The city's rapidly shrinking community of street sleeping vagrants (more politely called the chronically homeless), don't seem to overlap much with the group of men and boys who are the fathers of these children.

Some of the modest amount of research that has been done on these fathers is summarized here:

"Characteristics of families using Title IV-D services in 1995" by Matthew Lyon [is] one of the few reports that looked at the income of non-resident fathers: 1% had $0 income; 10% had an income of $1-$5,000; 18% had an income of $5,000-$10,000; 15% had an income of $10,001-$15,000; 10% had an income of $15,001-$20,000; 7% had an income of $20,001-$25,000; 8% had an income of $25,001-$30,000 and 30.5% had an income above $30,000. . . .

A Wisconsin study of absent fathers with showed that about 33% did not have a high diploma, 47% were high school graduates, and 20% had more education than a high school diploma. . . .

"non-residential fathers with higher income are more likely to pay than those with low income. Only 26% of non-resident fathers whose personal income was in the lowest quartile paid child support. In contrast, nearly 70% of non-resident fathers in the highest quartile paid such support. Among the fathers who paid child support, those with higher income paid more than low-income dads, $4,660 versus $2,264."

The strongest predictor of paying child support was the number of weeks a non-resident father works. Those who worked between 40 and 51 weeks were 7 percentage points less likely to pay child support than those who worked 52 weeks. Non-resident fathers who did not work at all were 33 percentage points less likely to pay child support.

A 10% increase in weekly earnings ($42/week) was estimated to boost annual child support payments by $104. Similarly, a 10% increase in non-labor income ($130) and in household income ($1,561) was associated with a respective rise in child support payments of $8.90 and $23.42.

Single African-American men with stable employment are twice as likely to marry the mother of the children they conceive out of wedlock (Testa and Krogh, 1995).

A study of 289 single teen-mother families on public assistance in Wisconsin found the father's work experience to be the strongest predictor of his remaining involved in the child's life (Danzinger and Radin, 1990).

A 1996 study showed that unmarried parents who are employed are significantly more likely to acknowledge paternity on a voluntary basis (Pearson and Thoennes, 1996).

Several studies find that most parents who are not paying child support regularly attribute non-payment to economic factors and unstable employment patterns (Pearson, et al., 1996; Haskins, 1985; Braver, et al., 1993).

The report Estimating How Much of California’s Child Support Arrears Are Collectable Using Statewide Databases (Sorensen and Zibman, 2001) found:

"Of those with no recent income, 23% do not live in California. Moreover, 5% are incarcerated and 16% are poor enough to qualify for Medical. Only 16% had incomes in the prior years and only 7% had assets. . . .

"U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that about 50% of fathers of TANF children have never been married and 50% are divorced."

These mothers are all committed to raising their children as well as they can manage, and if they just walked away, as the fathers did, would likely face serious criminal charges. Many of the fathers may have had trouble with the law, but one gets the impression that few are incarcerated for child neglect.

One is left to wonder if the situation might be signficantly better if there were more financial support in the system for couple with kids that stayed together, and more counseling support to help them do so. How many families fall into crime, domestic violence and child abuse and neglect primarily because they can't make ends meet financially and deal with that situation poorly?

Poverty is the root cause of a huge share of all child neglect:

Poverty and unemployment show strong associations with child maltreatment, particularly neglect. The NIS-3 study, for example, found that children from families with annual incomes below $15,000 in 1993 were more than 22 times more likely to be harmed by child abuse and neglect as compared to children from families with annual incomes above $30,000.

It is important to underscore that most poor people do not maltreat their children. However, poverty—particularly when interacting with other risk factors such as depression, substance abuse, and social isolation—can increase the likelihood of maltreatment. In 1999, 85 percent of States identified poverty and substance abuse as the top two problems challenging families reported to child protective service (CPS) agencies.

Certainly, in lots of cases in Sun Valley, an ideal of a two parent married couple heading up a family that wouldn't have been workable in any case. But, could an approach that supported financially stressed couples more strongly still help a lot more families better in the long run if it were adopted?

For example, "Analysing divorce during the three recessions between 1970 and 1982, Donald J. Hernandez, Chief of Marriage and Family Statistics at the US Bureau of the Census, estimates that recession accounted for about 50% of the increase in divorced or separated mother-only families between 1968 and 1988."

Financial stress is also one factor in the frequency of domestic violence (also here and here).

The Path To The Projects

We also don't get much of a view of what life was like for residents before arriving in the projects. But, one gets the impression that few non-refugee residents of Sun Valley arrived their from middle class roots. Instead, one sees young mothers without the fathers of their children there to support them, who ended up in that situation because they themselves grew up poor, received inadequate parental support, and didn't see other options for themselves.

Middle class kids have more hope, which makes them less tempted by iffy relationships and more prone to resort to the day after pill or abortions if they do they pregnant. And, middle class kids who get pregnant, are less likely to be deserted by boyfriends when they keep their babies, and are more likely to receive family support when their boyfriends do depart.

Residents are not just poor, they are persistently poor. To end up in Sun Valley you need to be homeless and very poor for years. Sun Valley is the modern day poor house. It isn't a prison. But, like a prison, it is isolated from the rest of the community and crime ridden. Residents get only what they need to survive. Those who thrive, leave.

This doesn't mean that the residents of Sun Valley are doing anything morally wrong. They are getting a very raw deal from our system, when what they have done is gotten pregnant, gotten dumped by their boyfriends, and kept their babies, which is what conservatives are constantly saying that they have a moral imperative to do. They are under great pressure to earn a living sufficient to support themselves and their children, despite having little education and few skills.

It makes all sorts of sense for single mothers who can find good paying employment to pay for day care and work a job for money. It isn't at all obvious that society is better off when single mothers who aren't high school graduates and don't have job skills work at a job for money, so that someone else can get paid almost as much as they make in order to take care of their children.

These are single mothers who mostly could have handled simply being mothers, perhaps with part-time jobs, in a married couple where a husband worked or with a widow's pension, very well. Their lives would have been unremarkable working class lives. But, because their boyfriends have betrayed them, they are under the intense stress of providing everything themselves and caring for their children.

Yes, there is public housing that limits rent to 30% of often meager incomes, and there are food stamps and WIC and free school breakfasts and lunches, and there is Medicaid, and there is an earned income tax credit. But, those benefits dissolve rapidly as their incomes rise, with combined marginal rates that would make Republicans utter apoplectic if applied to well heeled investors, making poverty even more of a trap.

Our society is remarkably harsh to young women with children who have been put in a very bad situation through decisions that aren't very blameworthy. Their main sin is the ultimate one in our society; not having enough money.

No comments: