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Employment solutions: Can a town’s good deeds lower unemployment?

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The lost letter ruse

Other research supports this line of inquiry.

Robert Sampson, a Harvard University sociologist, spent 15 years studying all the neighborhoods in Chicago. His book, "Great American City," was published in January. Using the US Census, housing data, and community surveys, Professor Sampson looked at the social conditions that either strengthen or weaken local altruism. He found large differences between neighborhoods, and patterns that have persisted through the recession.

In one field experiment, his researchers randomly scattered thousands of letters with fake names throughout Chicago's neighborhoods, and then calculated the rate at which people picked them up and mailed them. The rate was anywhere from none returned to 82 percent returned, depending on the neighborhood. And the rate of return corresponded to other factors that reflected each neighborhood's social "climate."

It's not just wealth or poverty that determines a neighborhood's climate, Sampson found, though that plays a role. Another crucial factor is how many organizations there are. It doesn't matter if it's a nonprofit group or a basketball league, a church or a barbershop, as long as there's a way for local people to gather.

Take the neighborhood of Oakland. It's one of the poorest areas in Chicago, but it also has one of the highest ratios of community organizations. Oakland's poverty rate has actually dropped since 2000, and its home foreclosure rate is about average for Chicago – much better outcomes than in the city's other poor neighborhoods.

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