Too often in the U.S., the land of opportunity, our residents’ childhood addresses determine their future success.
Data provided by a new online resource, The Opportunity Atlas, suggest that children’s opportunities for upward economic mobility are shaped, at least in part, by the neighborhoods in which they are raised or spend significant time during their formative years. Recent studies have found substantial variations of upward mobility across various neighborhoods, communities and metropolitan areas. For example, the neighborhoods in which they are raised are responsible for one-fourth of the gap in intergenerational economic mobility between blacks and whites.
This new information shows us that either neighborhoods themselves have a causal effect on future life outcomes and upward mobility or that there are systemic differences in the types of people who reside in these neighborhoods. In either case, Grassroots Grantmakers seeks to use the research in our work. We’re devising strategies that reshape neighborhoods as places that give our youngest residents the support needed to successfully transition into adulthood.
“What we have come to realize is that historical data on children can be leading indicators of economic opportunity,” says Roderick Wheeler, Executive Director, Grassroots Grantmakers. “However, this data should be combined with additional qualitative analyses and on-the-ground knowledge.”
The Opportunity Atlas is a free interactive mapping tool that measures the impact of children’s neighborhoods. The recently launched resource provides stakeholders with the data needed to learn more about why those neighborhoods matter. By using this tool, grantmakers, civic leaders, residents and key stakeholders can identify specific communities that may limit opportunities, and then develop targeted investment strategies at the neighborhood level to improve the chances of upward mobility for all residents.
Economic mobility varies by neighborhood
Based on data from 20 million individuals living in approximately 70,000 neighborhoods, social scientists and economists can estimate future earnings, incarceration rates, and other quality-of-life measures of children residing in every neighborhood in America. From one neighborhood to another, adult outcomes can vary greatly even among residents who have comparable incomes and are separated by only a few miles.
For example, the report Impacts on Neighborhoods on Intergenerational Mobility highlights the incarceration rates of children living in two Los Angeles neighborhoods, Watts and Compton. Nearly half (44%) of all children raised in the Watts neighborhood were incarcerated the day of the 2010 census, compared with just 6.2% of adults who were raised two miles away in a neighborhood in central Compton. The question we now must ask ourselves when investing in neighborhood improvement is: Why do incarceration rates vary dramatically between two neighborhoods that have similar resident characteristics?
Economic mobility varies by residents within neighborhoods
Research also informs us is that it is difficult to portray neighborhood as “good” or “bad.” When disaggregating data sets, researchers have found different adult outcomes for different racial and gender sub-groups in the same neighborhoods. So community philanthropy must seek additional information from individuals to learn what accounts for the differences experienced by residents — and how can we invest in developing “opportunity neighborhoods” that benefit all residents.
Economic growth benefits only some
Traditional measures of economic vitality have been rooted in overall economic and job market growth measures, usually at the metropolitan statistical area, or MSA, level. However, for many residents living in high economic growth areas like Miami, Atlanta and Dallas, not much of the MSA’s economic growth is benefiting residents born in these cities. In fact, the National Center for Children in Poverty reports that child poverty rates are some of the highest in cities experiencing the strongest economic growth rates. One explanation for this phenomenon is that many cities are importing talent from other locations rather than developing local talent to share in the economic growth of their own areas.
In contrast, some cities’ economic growth and upward mobility of residents go hand and hand. For example, residents born and raised in Denver, Seattle and Houston neighborhoods are far more likely to experience higher socio-economic upward mobility rates into adulthood.
Meanwhile, there is a group of cities — like Boston, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis — that have experienced very little economic growth, but their residents live in neighborhoods that produce higher-than-average economic mobility rates of children residing in various neighborhoods. And children who move into “opportunity neighborhoods” at an early age experience higher upward mobility rates than those who remain in neighborhoods that limit upward mobility.
Investing in upward mobility strategies
What seems to matter most are the conditions in one’s own neighborhood, not those in larger geographical areas or in cities. Developing targeted neighborhood investment strategies and engaging neighborhood residents to learn more about these inter- and intra-neighborhood dynamics that support or handicap upward mobility are critical to developing effective community investment strategies.