10 years after Katrina: Starting over – by Malcolm Gladwell

Many Katrina victims left New Orleans for good. What can we learn from them?

Leaving a dysfunctional urban neighborhood can transform a family’s prospects.

In an 8-year study, David Kirk, a sociologist at the University of Oxford, gathered data, cleaned it and analysed what happened to convicted criminals from New Orleans, released from prison after Katrina:

  • Those who went home had a recidivism rate of 60%
  • Those who couldn’t go home had a rate of 45%. They moved away, their lives got better. During a radio talk show, a 55 y.o. listener (recidivist) who moved to Houston after spending his adult life in New Orleans said:

    ‘Now, I hate that the storm came because a lot of people died in the storm, but, guess what, that was probably the best thing that could have happened to a lot of people, because it gave them the opportunity to reinvent themselves if their life wasn’t going right’.

Economists in a study of US economic mobility published in 2014 said:

‘the main lesson of our analysis is that intergenerational mobility is a local problem’.

Things that enable the poor to enter the middle class are more primarily national considerations (minimum-wage laws, college-loan programs or economic-growth rates) but factors from immediate environment: for those at the bottom best opportunities arise in neighborhoods racially integrated with low levels of income inequality, good schools, strong families, high level of social capital (eg. civic participation). That’s why moving matters: going to a neighborhood that scores high on those characteristics from one that does not can make a big difference to a family’s prospects.

The sociologist Corina Graif by tracking new addresses of 700 women displaced by Katrina (most of them lower-income and black) showed that their new neighborhoods were better than the ones they had left in New Orleans: median family income was $4,400 higher, ethnic diversity greater, more people had jobs. They were going to places like Houston where the odds of going from the bottom to the top are 9.3% (5.1% in New Orleans).