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.
It’s an old trick in journalism. I’ve done it. Every reporter I know has done it. You talk to the main players about a complex or controversial topic. You get “both sides of the story.” Then, whether you set out to or not, you subtly frame the story and select quotes and details in a way that suggests truth and justice are on one side.
I kept thinking of this as I watched “The Experiment,” Ben Lemoine’s film about the changes that have taken place New Orleans schools since Hurricane Katrina, at a screening hosted by the IU Education Policy Student Association.
Lemoine is a former TV news reporter, and his film, on the surface, nods to the conventions of balanced journalism. He presents the city’s education changes – the takeover by the state-run Recovery School District, the mass conversion to charter schools, a voucher program for children to transfer from under-performing public schools to private schools – as an “experiment” whose results won’t be immediately obvious. With a broadcast writer’s knack for simplicity, he boils down the complexities of education reform to simple nuggets that anyone can understand.
But Lemoine’s heart is with the reformers. He gives decent air time to reform critics Ken Saltman, author of “Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools,” and Lance Hill, director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research. But the last word typically goes to reformers and cheerleaders: Continue reading