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The Zip Code Trap

A Root Quarterly writer wonders: Why should five little numbers determine so much about our lives?

The Zip Code Trap

A Root Quarterly writer wonders: Why should five little numbers determine so much about our lives?

In situations where control is largely illusory, humans have long looked outside of themselves for clues about who we are and will become. We worship inside architectural marvels and outside on moonlit hilltops. We look for signs in the bottoms of teacups and in the patterns of birds in flight. We read horoscopes, palms, cards, and runes. We light candles, call the corners, bow heads, and cross hearts praying, meditating, and bargaining our way toward meaning and purpose. Numerology, a comfortable companion of astrology and tarot, is the belief in a meaningful (divine, mystical) relationship between a number and an event or series of events; in this system, a person’s birth date determines their Life Path and Destiny numbers.

In modern times, another kind of numerology can determine your life path and destiny: your zip code. Where you are born and raised is an important factor in predicting your journey, overall success, and life expectancy. Sometimes referred to as the “birth lottery,” whether you win or lose was determined by events out of your control and before your time. Five simple digits may seal your fate.

Here in Pennsylvania, a new court ruling may help detangle some of our residents from the trappings of their geography, namely, what kinds of education are available to them. In early February, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer ruled that the state’s school funding system was unconstitutional. Jubelirer wrote in her decision that petitioners had presented proof of funding disparities between affluent and low-income districts that couldn’t be rationally or legally justified. Also cited in the decision were gaps in achievement, graduation rates, and collegiate enrollment and graduation between affluent and low-income districts. According to reporting in The Philadelphia Inquirer, per Jubelirer’s ruling, the state constitution was, “clearly, palpably, and plainly violated because of a failure to provide all students with access to a comprehensive, effective, and contemporary system of public education that will give them a meaningful opportunity to succeed academically, socially, and civically.”1

Where you are born and raised is an important factor in predicting your journey, overall success, and life expectancy. Sometimes referred to as the “birth lottery,” whether you win or lose was determined by events out of your control and before your time. Five simple digits may seal your fate

A lack of life opportunities for residents in these neighborhoods, in part brought on by the dysfunctional school funding system, has been a long time in the making. It will take time to unmake, but the possibility is now there.

[Editor’s note: This article is in Root Quarterly’s Spring 2023 print issue, “Fate.” Subscribe to Root Quarterly here.]

In 1933, as a way to contend with a nationwide housing shortage in the aftermath of the Great Depression, the federal government began a housing program under the New Deal that created the suburbs and populated them with White residents. Many African Americans and other non-White ethnic groups were moved into urban housing projects. A year later the Federal Housing Administration started to refuse to insure mortgages in non-White neighborhoods while simultaneously subsidizing housing development in the suburbs with the requirement that homes only be sold to Whites. Metropolitan neighborhoods were mapped and color-coded according to creditworthiness as determined by the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. In what became known as “redlining,” neighborhoods occupied by non-Whites were deemed the highest risk and coded red. This government-mandated segregation would concentrate poverty in communities of color for generations to come. (Redlining was practiced until 1977.) Without the ability to buy homes or refinance, housing stock in urban centers deteriorated. Businesses moved out, leaving people without access to the basic necessities for positive future outcomes.

When maps of historically redlined areas are overlaid on maps of current U.S. cities, racial segregation now varies city to city, but consistent and deeply entrenched are the economic disadvantages.2 Most people living in a formerly redlined area have lower median household income, lower home values, and rents that, while lower than surrounding areas, still create a cost burden.3 People living in previously redlined areas experience higher rates of poverty, chronic diseases (such as asthma, diabetes, hypertension, and obesity), and a lower life expectancy. Less resourced, these people are also more vulnerable to personal crises such as an illness, a job loss, or natural disasters.4

Though an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is possible, the February school funding ruling is a victory for districts, parents, and advocacy groups who came together in 2014 — represented by the Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center — to argue that the state’s funding system disproportionately affects low-wealth students and students of color.5 “At a high level, this is an extremely exciting time,” Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center, told me. “What was made clear during testimony is that all children can learn and succeed when given the tools. …The ruling solidifies education as a fundamental right.”

Pennsylvania public schools receive 11 percent of their funding from the federal government. The state chips in 38 percent; the remaining 51 percent comes from local governments. Until 2016, Pennsylvania used a funding formula based on (antiquated) enrollment numbers from the 1990s. The new formula includes current enrollment and takes into consideration poverty rates, first languages, and students with individualized education plans (IEP). An improvement to be sure, but the 2016 formula applies only to new funding. In 2020, the new formula generated $700 million compared to the $5.5 billion distributed through the old system. (Prior to leaving office, former Governor Tom Wolf increased new funding to $1.4 billion.) The gap between current funding and what would meet constitutional obligations is believed to be somewhere between $3 billion and $4.6 billion.

There are very few regulations on how local governments can raise their portion of school funds: Some districts have funding floors, others funding ceilings. (There is a cap on how much property taxes can be increased without voter approval.) This lack of comprehensive legislative oversight and antiquated, hodgepodge funding results in the ability of affluent districts to allocate significantly more per student than their less-affluent neighbors. And that’s before better-resourced and connected families form parent-teacher associations and “Friends of” groups to give even more money to the schools their children attend.

Meeting the many needs of students

Ask any Pennsylvania public school teacher about funding disparities and they’ll likely have a story about personally paying to supply everything from paper, pens, and snacks, to clothing, musical instruments, and Chromebooks. Ask a Pennsylvania public school teacher you know — say, your big brother, who’s been teaching for 20 years — and you’ll get a response that speaks to the depth of the challenges.

Funding disparities are real and significant, but beyond materials and equipment, there are profound gaps in staffing that make it nearly impossible to meet the needs of students. Schools are seldom employing enough counselors — if they have any at all — to emotionally support their students (and this was before the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the epidemic of loneliness and a slew of other mental health issues). Teachers and faculty, too, are struggling (just like the rest of us), waiting months sometimes to see a counselor. It’s difficult to become a counselor in Pennsylvania. My sister-in-law, a Pennsylvania public school teacher with 22 years of experience, is currently making this career transition: It requires a master’s degree — her second — and 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience. (If we could just get out of our own way …)

My big brother also clued me into ACE testing. Adverse Childhood Experiences testing has been around since 1995 and is used to assess how incidents of abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction experienced by individuals under the age of 18 impact their future success. The test asks questions about exposure to abuse and hunger, visits to the doctor, instances of drug use and drinking, and temporary or permanent loss of a primary caregiver due to violence, incarceration, or mental illness. The gist of it is that the more childhood trauma, the higher your score, and the higher the risk for various problems later in life.6 A score of 4 and higher is significant.

The Philadelphia ACE Project has been working since 2012 to develop policies and practices that counter adverse childhood experiences and improve the overall health and wellbeing of children impacted by trauma. With a focus on community and workforce education, and intervention around issues of trauma and resilience, the Philadelphia ACE Task Force is composed of more than 100 individuals with backgrounds in pediatrics, behavioral health, education, law, and philanthropy.7

Ask any Pennsylvania public school teacher about funding disparities and they’ll likely have a story about personally paying to supply everything from paper, pens, and snacks, to clothing, musical instruments, and Chromebooks.

Partnered with a behavioral health nonprofit, Public Health Management Corporation, the Philadelphia ACE Project conducted a survey in 2012 and 2013 of 1,784 adult participants in Philadelphia that expanded on the original ACE questionnaire to include additional community-level stressors specific to the urban environment, including witnessing violence, living in foster care, bullying, experiencing racism or discrimination, and feeling unsafe in one’s neighborhood. The results: One in five participants scored 4 or higher; 40 percent experienced significant trauma related to the additional community-level stressors.8

One of the highest-scoring ACE zip codes in Philadelphia is 19133. Located in North Philadelphia and including the Fairhill neighborhood, this zip code also bears the distinction of being the poorest in the city — 42.6 percent of residents live in poverty.9 Median household income and home value are significantly below state average; unemployment is significantly above state average. Much of this zip code was redlined by the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation10 and is now home to predominantly Hispanic families, many of whom do not finish high school.

Help, maybe, is on the way

Between the time this issue goes to print and you read this piece, several things with the potential to create more equitable public schools are expected to happen.

Pennsylvania State Representative Elizabeth Fiedler and colleagues will introduce three education bills:11 PlanCon, to fund the already existing program that reimburses school districts for construction projects and maintenance;12 a bill to make the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) more easily accessible to schools;13 and one to fund the installation of solar arrays on school roofs and grounds. Also, Gov. Josh Shapiro will have released his first budget. As attorney general, Shapiro filed an amicus brief supporting the school funding case, so there is reason to believe his budget will call for significant additional school funding. Klehr, the petitioners, and funding advocates are looking for a “significant down payment” in the neighborhood of $2 billion. In a sit-down with The Philadelphia Inquirer to recap his first month in office, Shapiro did not provide specifics about his school funding plan, though he indicated it would include measures to increase access to mental health services.14

Any down payment Shapiro seeks to make will have to be approved by the PA General Assembly in June. Beyond this year’s budget, the constitutional obligation to find a funding formula that provides comprehensive, effective, and contemporary education and meaningful opportunity remains an urgent priority. In zip codes across the state, thousands of futures hang in the balance. (The students who were part of the 2014 lawsuit are now out of, or nearly out of, the school system.)

I learned about these (future to me, past to you) legislative happenings over the course of a few phone calls. On one, with Rep. Fiedler’s office, I was told that constituents routinely underestimate the power of a phone call. Consider that it may take just 30 phone calls about a single issue to convince a (proactive, state) legislative office to “drop everything” and prioritize a particular issue. So, maybe the divinatory number here is 10. Ten numbers to influence the life path of a kid living in a zip code like 19133. We can continue to look for signs, to light candles, to pray, meditate, and bargain, but we can also dial our way toward meaning and purpose.

1 “What to Know About the Landmark Pa. School Funding Case Decision.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 7, 2023.
2 “America’s Formerly Redlined Neighborhoods Have Changed, and So Must Solutions to Rectify Them.” The Brookings Institution, Oct. 14, 2019.
3 Paying more than 30% of household income for housing and related expenses such as utilities.
4 “In U.S. Cities, the Health Effects of Past Housing Discrimination are Plain to See.” NPR, Nov. 19, 2020.
5 “Pa.’s Landmark School Funding Lawsuit has Been Going on for 8 Years. Here’s Where It Stands.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jan. 23, 2023.
6` “Take the ACE Quiz—and Learn What It Does and Doesn’t Mean.” NPR, Mar. 2, 2015.
7 “Philadelphia ACE Survey.” The Philadelphia ACE Project, 2021.
8 “Findings from Philadelphia Urban ACE Survey.” Public Health Management Corporation,
Sept. 18, 2013.
9 “Federal Poverty Income Guidelines.” Pennsylvania Department of Human Services,, 2023.
10 “Mapping the Legacy of Structural Racism in Philadelphia.” City of Philadelphia Office of the Controller,, Jan. 23, 2020.
11 “Democratic Lawmakers Announce Legislation to Invest in School Facilities.” PA House of Representatives,, Mar. 1, 2023.
12 “School Construction and Facilities (PlanCon).” Pennsylvania Department of Education,
13 RACP funds are used by developers and cultural institutions and organizations to supplement the acquisition and construction of assets that generate or sustain economic activity.
14 “We Sat Down with Gov. Josh Shapiro to Talk About His First Month. Here are Our Takeaways.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 27, 2023.

This article is in RQ’s Spring 2023 issue, “Fate.” Subscribe to Root Quarterly here.

Lauren Earline Leonard is the managing editor of RQ. She is a Philadelphia-based writer, director, and producer who founded Earlie Bird Productions in 2017. With EBP she co-wrote and directed V2:Creation Myth (2018), Mother/Daughter (2018), and the original work DREDx (2019). EBP’s The Loneliness Project premiered in May 2022. Leonard is making the most of her B.A. in theater from Temple University as a member of the performance company Humble Materials. 



Photo by Sabina Louise Pierece

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