Poor children growing up in Atlantic County have some of the nation’s worst financial prospects, according to a recently released study using federal tax records.

Researchers from the Equality of Opportunity Project, led by Harvard University economists, looked at data on more than 5 million children whose families moved across counties between 1996 and 2012.

It ranked Atlantic County 2,455th out of 2,478 counties in the U.S. for improving financial outcomes. The county fell between Greenville, South Carolina, and Monroe, Georgia. The bottom of the list is dominated by Southern states.

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Cumberland County ranked 2,334th, Cape May County 1,970th and Ocean County 1,512th.

The study asked whether the geographic area in which poor children grow up affects their chances for upward economic ability. The answer was yes and suggests that lower-income parents attempt to move to more economically and racially integrated areas with less concentrated poverty, especially when their children are young.

“On average, exposure to areas where permanent residents have better outcomes raises the expected outcomes of the children that move there,” the researchers said. The longer a child lives in an area with better outcomes, the more his or her own fate begins to converge with the community norm.

Conversely, every year of exposure to a worse environment decreases a child’s chances of success, the researchers said.

The report estimated a young adult at age 26 who grew up in Atlantic County with parents in the 25th percentile of national income distribution — making $30,000 per year — would make $4,310 less per year, or almost 17 percent less, than the national average for someone with the same economic background.

On the other hand, a poor child growing up in high-opportunity Bucks County, Pennsylvania, will make about $3,500, or 13 percent, more than the national average for that economic background at age 26, the study found.

Atlantic County Administrator Jerry DelRosso had not seen the study but said Atlantic County’s low median family income is a problem. It is $48,103, the lowest in the state, compared to $85,248 statewide, according to the 2015 New Jersey Kids Count report put out by Advocates for Children of New Jersey last month.

The families in the study who moved were still poor. But those who moved to counties with less income and race segregation, better schools, lower rates of violent crime and more two-parent households had children who tended to do better as young adults.

Except in large metropolitan areas, rents were not usually higher in counties in which outcomes were better.

Younger siblings tended to do better than older siblings after a move to a high-opportunity area, showing that the strength of the benefit comes from longer exposure to an improved environment.

About 27 percent of Atlantic County’s 62,000 children were living in poverty in 2013, the most recent statistics available, according to Kids Count. The county in 2014 had the second highest family unemployment rate at 11.3 percent, compared to 5.7 percent statewide. And that was before the mass casino layoffs in 2014.

The Harvard study also found that areas with a larger African-American population tended to have lower rates of upward mobility.

The Kids Count report found that statewide, one-third of black children and 29 percent of Hispanic children lived in poor families in 2013, while only 6 percent of Asian children and 8 percent of white children did.

In addition to affecting the income levels of those children in young adulthood, the area in which they grow up also will improve or worsen “a broad range of other outcomes, including college attendance and the probability of having a teenage birth,” the study found.

The researchers said more work needs to be done to identify policies to help areas of low opportunity improve, but they said their findings indicate that breaking up concentrated poverty and reducing economic and racial segregation is important.

“We need to take a broader approach — something bigger than, ‘Let’s make sure we have high-quality preschool and breakfast in school.’ In the end, is that enough?” said ACNJ Executive Director Cecilia Zalkind. “It sounds like definitely more is needed. Housing is a significant issue.”

The Harvard researchers acknowledged others have not found the same benefits to children who move, such as those in the Moving to Opportunity housing voucher experiment that Congress started about 20 years ago. It gave housing vouchers to low-income families who won a lottery drawing allowing them to move to better neighborhoods.

The MTO study did not find families who moved had higher incomes, or that their children did better in school.

But the Harvard researchers said previous studies did not wait long enough to study the outcomes for children who moved when they were youngest and had the most exposure to better communities. In a separate study, their examination of tax data for MTO families showed that children who moved to better neighborhoods before age 13 had incomes about 30 percent higher in their mid-20s than a control group who didn’t move.

Contact Michelle Brunetti Post:

609-272-7219

@MichelleBPost on Twitter

Senior copy editor for the Press of Atlantic City. Have worked as a reporter, copy editor and news editor with the paper since 1985. A graduate of the University of Delaware.

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