New Orleans: the youth/adult ratio and why it matters

According to the New York Times, in areas of New Orleans where there was significant flooding, the poverty rate was 29%, four out of five residents were people of color, and the ratio of adults to minors was (as I calculate it) 2.58-to-one. That is a similar ratio to what we see in Detroit and Camden, NJ. It is not too far below the national average of 2.5-to-one. But it is quite different from the pattern in wealthier neighborhoods. In contrast to the inner city, some of Detroit’s suburbs have four adults per minor. Even the non-flooded parts of New Orleans (where the median income is much higher and about half of the residents are White) have an adult-to-minor ratio of 3.5-to-one.

Why does this matter? Dan Hart and colleagues argue that “child-saturated” communities–those with fewer than three adults per minor–do not provide many adult role models, much adult supervision, or many opportunities for participation in adult-led groups. On the bright side, when there are many youth, they can participate in volunteer activities together and benefit from positive peer role models. Youth are more likely to volunteer than adults; therefore, volunteering is particularly common in youth-heavy communities. But there is an important exception: youth-saturated neighborhoods that are also poor tend to have low levels of civic participation as well as high rates of delinquency. This is probably because young people suffer from the shortage of adult leaders, and there are too few youth organizations with adequate and legitimate funding to absorb most kids. The “autonomous youth culture” is subject to heavy influence by one group of local people who happen to have money and power: criminals.

Thus cities like Detroit and Camden face a shortage of adults along with their other problems. And I suspect that the low adult/youth ratio in New Orleans–which may have dropped further after the evacuation–is an important reason why order broke down there.