There’s more to home than crawfish

Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article on the benefits that accrued to New Orleans residents who relocated after Katrina is persuasive on first reading. But give it a bit more thought and some of the economic gains he describes start to feel shaky.

Gladwell cites a study of 700 women who left the city and settled elsewhere after the hurricane. Most of them were black and poor:

Median family income was forty-four hundred dollars higher. Ethnic diversity was greater. More people had jobs. Their exposure to ‘concentrated disadvantage’ — an index that factors in several measures of poverty — fell by half a standard deviation.

That sounds pretty good. But suppose one of those women has a child who needs day care while the mother works. If she is in Texas, a common destination for New Orleans refugees, the average annual cost of child care is $2,000 to $3,000 more per child than in Louisiana.

Suppose she has two. Or three. The relocation premium that Gladwell and his economists and sociologists tout gets washed away pretty quickly.

In fact the working poor are likely to rely on family and neighbor networks for child care and babysitting. This may be a foreign concept to academic economists and New Yorker writers, but it’s often not such a bad thing – not for the children and not for the grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends providing the care.

For parents working low-wage jobs, it’s often a way to save money – maybe $6,000 or more per child each year if the relatives aren’t charging. And it may be a necessity if they’re in service-sector jobs that require working nights and weekends when child care centers and preschools aren’t open.

For children and caregivers, it’s a chance to make connections that are invaluable. Jason Buell, writing from a teacher’s perspective, said this better than I can possibly express it:

Shift your lens for a moment. Imagine we valued an expanded view of family. The old woman who brings over food. The household full of noise and life and love. The neighbor who picks up all of the kids from school. Everyone becomes family. Now who has the deficit? The girl in this household who lacks a father but has the entire community? Or the boy with one sister, two parents, and doesn’t know his neighbors?

For Gladwell, the post-Katrina narrative is about a trade-off between a bright future somewhere else and New Orleans residents’ well-known but self-defeating attachment to home:

The child who moves from Central City (New Orleans) to Salt Lake City at the age of five or six gets the benefit of all of his or her education in a better school, an adolescence largely free of violence and crime, and an early adulthood in a place with jobs and opportunities. The benefits are less obvious for the parents: they leave behind their networks and family ties and the pleasures of crawfish.

No doubt there are plenty of people for whom leaving New Orleans was a good thing. But those who stayed and those who returned weren’t acting only on a sense of nostalgia and a taste for crawfish. For many people, staying close to family isn’t a choice but a necessity. It really does take a village.

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