Are the Suburbs Worth It?
by Joshua Michtom
The Facebook timelines of my city’s modest intelligentsia are abuzz with angry responses to a recent piece in n+1, titled, simply, “Hartford, Connecticut.” I could delve into the ways that the piece is right (Hartford is the logical consequence of voluntary suburban segregation, an island of brown poverty in a sea of white affluence) or wrong (“There is no burgeoning art scene or burgeoning anything”). But one well-crafted phrase struck me, and made me think about the financial choices that middle class people make: “The narcissism of parenting is getting to abandon any pretense of caring for places ‘when it’s for my kid.’” In other words, today’s middle class twenty- and thirty-somethings are marvelous cheerleaders for diversity and the new urbanism until they confront the prospect of their kid being the only one in the classroom with college-educated parents, or the only white one. Suddenly, people say “schools” and “crime” and without further deliberation, start applying mortgages pre-approval.
Before you trot out New York Times trend stories about the web developers who have converted Bushwick butcher shops to bohemian family lofts and are pouring their energies into local schools and PTAs, let me be clear. This is not New York or San Francisco or Austin or Charlotte. My city has 125,000 people and it is very very poor (fourth poorest in the nation, the n+1 piece helpfully points out!). There is no bourgeois enclave here that is big enough to insulate children from the city’s public schools, or from its poverty. Practically speaking, there is almost no gentrification. So when middle class folks in Hartford have kids, the first thing people ask is, “What are you going to do about the schools?” Most of the time, the answer is to move to the suburbs. But is it worth it? And more importantly, do new middle class parents give this the kind of careful deliberation that such a big decision deserves?
I cannot pretend to do a useful comparison of the relative costs of city renting and suburban home ownership. There are too many variables and too many personal preferences to offer any insight. (In my own highly idiosyncratic experience, renting has proved a better deal, but your mileage may vary.) But what about the schools? They are better, sure, but how much better? How much more should a monthly mortgage payment be than monthly rent to live in a neighborhood with less crime? And is something else lost when we sacrifice a communitarian investment in a place for individual advantage, and in the transaction raise our children with less exposure to economic and ethnic diversity?
I live in the middle of this question. When I got divorced two years ago, I moved from a relatively affluent neighborhood in the already affluent town of West Hartford (6th best place in the nation for families, according to Family Circle Magazine! 72nd best place to live in 2012, according to Money Magazine!) to Hartford, where nearly a third of residents live in poverty. My children split their time between the two households (which is to say, between two worlds), and they’re still in West Hartford public schools. My rent is $900 a month, compared to a monthly mortgage in West Hartford of about $2,100. Add in property taxes, and access to suburban schools costs an extra $2,000 a month.
As a lawyer, I’ve represented hundreds of kids who attended Hartford schools, in juvenile delinquency matters, special education cases, and school expulsions. I have been inside most of the schools in Hartford, and many of my friends are products of Hartford’s public schools. So I feel comfortable saying that West Hartford schools are totally, unarguably better than Hartford schools. But $24,000 a year better?
People point a lot to Hartford’s dismal testing numbers and high dropout rate. But I haven’t seen any statistics that control for household income, and that matters a ton. Through work, I have met a lot of kids who drop out of Hartford schools or are on the verge of dropping out, and pretty much all of them come from complicated, difficult homes.
These are kids whose parents haven’t graduated high school, or don’t read and write English, or are dealing with the stresses of unemployment, drug addiction, unstable housing, or abusive relationships. I don’t mean to say that they are necessarily bad parents, but they have a lot more stressors in their lives and it stands to reason that they can’t provide as much academic support to their kids as I can to mine.
I mean, I am a lawyer and my ex-wife is a college professor. We have comprehensive health and dental insurance and generous sick leave allowances. We have the resources and time to go to school conferences and open houses and all that other stuff. We read with our kids and take them to museums and cultural events and have the wherewithal to help them with their homework competently for many years (except maybe in math, which was hard 25 years ago and appears to have gotten harder since). So I think it is safe to say that many of the factors that lead teenagers to drop out of school in Hartford (i.e., poverty) are far less likely to affect my kids, no matter where they attend school.
I also know many people who graduated from the Hartford school system and went on to college, graduate school, and professional success in various endeavors. Most of them come from middle class families with professional parents — like my kids — and have achieved precisely the sort of success I would hope for and expect from my kids.
Is there any reason to think my two boys couldn’t graduate from Hartford High, go to a decent college, and have perfectly normal, bourgeois lives? Are West Hartford schools the crucial factor that will differentiate — for my kids — between Harvard and and the local community college (putting aside whether community college is even such a terrible fate)?
The other argument mustered in favor of moving to the suburbs when you have kids is safety. I started thinking about this over a year ago, after reading Noah Berlatsky’s piece in The Atlantic, “A Lesson From New Guinea: Your Kid Is Going To Be Fine,” in which he responds to Jared Diamond’s book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? Berlatsky recounts how he let his nine-year-old walk alone to a neighbor’s house a few blocks away, inspired by Diamond’s story of how 10-year-olds in New Guinea are often allowed to leave home for months, more or less on their own initiative.
My experience has been similar: I let my nine-year-old and his seven-year-old brother circumnavigate our block in the summer and I do so without extraordinary worry: sure, we live in the second poorest neighborhood in one of the nation’s poorest cities, but most of the people who live here are families with kids, like us. On my block, the parents know each other and know whose kid is whose, and everyone looks out for everyone. We’ve never heard gunshots on our street, and most of the crime in the area is drug-related and involves adults who have met one another before.
Now, certain parents may feel that any exposure to crime — even just seeing evidence of the drug trade and its unhappy social results — is intolerably detrimental to their kids. But if we are talking about real danger, I think my poor urban neighborhood is plenty safe for a couple of sensible elementary school kids.
And aren’t there benefits to urban living, benefits that should be rationally considered before buying a house and a lawnmower? I don’t mean to disparage the suburbs or the country — they have their charms, and I understand that people love them, especially people who grew up in them. (Also, I have to admit that back yards are pretty great.) Still, there are a lot of people who love cities but leave them when they have kids. They should consider the benefits to their children of city living with the same seriousness that they pore over school district test scores and college acceptance rates.
My kids’ idea of normal is immensely more diverse than it would be in the suburbs. They are the only white kids among their many playmates in our building, and they live in a world where they are distinctly in the minority in terms of race and class. I don’t pretend that this will serve as remedy for the privilege that will inevitably accrue to them in their lives, but it will, at least, give them a perspective they wouldn’t get in the suburbs. I’ll admit that I wish that everyone could be neighborly enough not to say, “What the hell are all these fuckin’ white kids doing here,” as someone did today when my sons and a white schoolmate were playing in our building’s courtyard. But I’m not too worried about it. I think a lot of white people could stand to feel the sting of uncomfortable minority status from time to time, and middle class children would generally do well to spend formative time in intimate proximity to the poverty that still afflicts so many places in this country.
All of which is not to say that city living, whether in poor, benighted Hartford or some more up-and-coming locale, is for everyone. The fact that my kids seem to be having a good go of it in Hartford (as I did growing up in pre-hipster Brooklyn) is emphatically anecdotal and doesn’t prove my argument. I hope that growing income inequality and the tightening of credit won’t prove my argument either. But people considering leaving the city to have kids really should give it careful deliberation, for the sake of their own happiness, for their kids, and to help me and my friends prove that n+1 piece totally wrong.
Josh Michtom is a public defender in Hartford, Connecticut. He spends way too much of his spare time decorating his children’s school lunch bags.