August 18, 2015


Starting Over : Many Katrina victims left New Orleans for good. What can we learn from them? (MALCOLM GLADWELL, 8/24/15, The New Yorker)

The first time that David Kirk visited New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was at the end of 2005. His in-laws were from the city. Kirk and his wife visited them at Christmas, just four months after the storm hit, and then went back again on several more occasions throughout 2006. New Orleans was devastated. Thousands had fled. "I'll admit I'd drive around the Lower Ninth, taking it all in, feeling a little guilty about being the gawking tourist," Kirk said not long ago. "It made an impression on me. These neighborhoods were gone."

Kirk is a sociologist at the University of Oxford. He trained at the University of Chicago under Robert Sampson, and, for Sampson and the small army of his former graduate students who now populate sociology departments around the world, neighborhoods are the great obsession: What effect does where you live have on how you turn out? It's a difficult question to answer because the characteristics of place and the characteristics of the people who happen to live in that place are hard to untangle. As Kirk drove around the Lower Ninth, however, he realized that post-Katrina New Orleans provided one of those rare occasions when fate had neatly separated the two variables. In the course of bringing immeasurable suffering to the people of New Orleans, Katrina created what social scientists call a "natural experiment": one day, people were in the neighborhoods where they had lived, sometimes for generations. The next day, they were gone--sometimes hundreds of miles away. "They had to move," Kirk said. What, he wondered, were the implications of that?

"I worked my connections to see who would talk to me," Kirk went on. "It turned out that one of my colleagues at the University of Maryland had done research on boot camps in Louisiana. Ultimately, I got in touch with someone who is now the head of the prison system, a guy named James LeBlanc." Kirk's idea was to look at convicted criminals from New Orleans who had been released from prison after Katrina. As a group, they were fairly homogeneous: largely black, largely poor. For years, their pattern was to return to their old neighborhoods after they were released: to their families, homes, social networks. But for some, by the most random of circumstances, that was now impossible. Their neighborhoods--the Lower Ninth, New Orleans East--had been washed away. How did the movers compare with the stayers?

"This was December, 2006," Kirk recounted. "I asked for a few things. I wanted information on where prisoners were living prior to Katrina. And I also wanted information on where they were living after release. I basically got an address file from the Department of Corrections for everyone who came out of prison from 2001 to 2007. It was extremely messy. They don't necessarily collect data in a way that makes it easy to geo-code. There would be notes like 'This is grandma's telephone line.' I went line by line to clean it up." He wound up with a list of three thousand individuals. His interest was recidivism: Were those people who came out of prison and found their entire world destroyed more likely or less likely to end up back in prison than those who could go home again? Kirk looked first at the results one year and three years after release and has since been working on an eight-year study. The results aren't even close. Those who went home had a recidivism rate of sixty per cent. Those who couldn't go home had a rate of forty-five per cent. They moved away. Their lives got better.

"This spring, I was on a radio talk show in Houston, Sunday morning," Kirk said. "This guy was listening. He called me up. He is a crack addict, with multiple incarcerations for burglary and theft. This is a guy who grew up in Arkansas, didn't have a very good childhood. He went down to Louisiana, and spent his entire adult life in New Orleans. Then he moved to Houston. I don't know his exact age, maybe a fifty-year-old black male. And this is what he told me: '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.' "

Posted by at August 18, 2015 5:49 PM

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