Black Americans are much more likely to stay in place and much less likely than whites to engage in what the sociologist Patrick Sharkey calls “contextual mobility”—moves significant enough to change circumstances and opportunities. Robert Sampson once mapped the movement of African-Americans participating in a Chicago housing experiment over a seven-year period starting in the mid-nineteen-nineties, and the graphic consists of tight clusters of very short lines—spanning a few city blocks, or extending one or two neighborhoods over. How often do African-Americans from the poorest neighborhoods of the South Side leave the city of Chicago? “Rarely,” Sharkey said.But the story is largely about the African-American diaspora from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
If a group of poor Americans are stuck in a bad place, then either the place they are stuck in needs to be improved or they need to move to a better place. Over the years, there have been numerous efforts to advance the second of these approaches—experimental projects, government initiatives —but they have been hard to execute on a large scale. Then came the storm.That disaster (which had a combination of natural and human-induced causes) forced people to find new lives elsewhere, especially in Houston. Guess what? Life is better for most of them. The obvious point is that since we cannot (and should not!) go around creating disasters, something like the New Homestead Act, which provides national, rather than just state or local resources for relocating, is something that genuinely makes sense.