David Brooks writes in the NYT:
I chose to go to Compton and Watts for a specific reason, which offers a way forward. Harvard economist Raj Chetty recently led a study that showed that though these two neighborhoods are demographically similar and only 2.3 miles apart, 44 percent of the black men who grew up in Watts were incarcerated on April 1, 2010, compared with only 6.2 percent of the black men who grew up in families with similar incomes in Central Compton. Similarly, social mobility was much lower in Watts than in Compton.
Why are some neighborhoods, including some in Compton, able to give their kids better chances in life despite so many disadvantages? Chetty points to several factors: better schools, more fathers present in the neighborhoods and more cohesive community organizations.
I found all those things in my reporting in Compton — and something else. Watts is part of Los Angeles. Compton is its own city with its own mayor. I met a lot of great people in Watts, but Compton has more civic infrastructure — community groups and locally controlled government agencies. Compton has a lot of homegrown civic reformers, like Rafer Owens, who is a deputy Los Angeles County sheriff and pastor at a Baptist church. There’s also a mentality: We have faith in our ability to take care of ourselves; only people in the neighborhood really know what’s going on.
Some people who talk about inequality focus on the top 1 percent, and if you want to go after the hedge fund billionaires feel free. But as inequality is actually lived out, it’s the 20/80 gap that is most glaring and most unjust.
But we can reduce the opportunity gap if we follow the lessons of Compton: First, the neighborhood is the unit of change. Social mobility rises village by village. Second, the people in the community have to be in charge. They need resources from outside, but only local control does the trick.
Or maybe Compton’s notoriety as the home to gangsta rap is due to the fact that moderately educated blacks with okay jobs and ambitious sons tended to live there rather than in down-and-out Watts. 54% of Compton residents currently own their own home relative to 33% in Watts.
Compton’s original housing stock was pretty nice: e.g., George H.W. Bush moved his young family to Compton in 1949 when his oil career took him to SoCal, making Compton home to two Presidents.
Watts isn’t inevitably a disaster either—lots of cute little single family homes, but it was always intended to be fairly downscale. Compton was aimed a little higher than Watts from the start.
Compton is now mostly Latino but I believe most of the government jobs and politicians are still black. My guess is that the neighborhood in Compton where black kids do pretty well in life is the one where Compton’s cops, firemen, and politicians live. In the lousier neighborhoods in Compton, the blacks long ago moved out to the Inland Empire and the like, letting the Latinos take over.