Neighborhoods matter: Exploring 'Opportunity Atlas' for places that might help poor kids get ahead
By Rachel Dissell, The Plain Dealer
US Census and Opportunity Insights
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Across America, there are bright spots, neighborhoods where kids who grow up poor have a chance to climb the income ladder. But precious few of them seem to be in Greater Cleveland.
There are places here that offer a good chance for kids to do better than their parents. But here, as elsewhere, they tend to exclude poor and black families.
Because neighborhoods can powerfully influence the trajectories of children who grow up there, a group of economists has just released a free interactive mapping tool it calls "The Opportunity Atlas."
It was created in collaboration with the U.S. Census Bureau and Opportunity Insights, a new research and policy institute formed by economists from Harvard and Brown University.
The atlas contains anonymized Census Bureau and federal tax return data on about 20 million people born from 1978 to 1983, starting with where they grew up and what their parents earned. It tracks their own income as adults, along with other factors like levels of incarceration, teen births or educational attainment.
The tool allows for comparisons of outcomes with family or neighborhood characteristics, across the country or just across the street, once those young people reached their 30s.
John Friedman, associate professor of economics at Brown University, said Opportunity Atlas can help paint a picture of what roles neighborhoods play, and will allow policy makers to spot, study and replicate conditions that create opportunity.
Friedman co-founded Opportunity Insights, along with Harvard University economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, to research the decline of upward mobility and look for ways to revive it. They collaborated with US Census Bureau researchers Maggie R. Jones and Sonya R. Porter to create the Opportunity Atlas.
US Census and Opportunity Insights
Like much of the what some call the Rust Belt, over the past few decades Cleveland generally has seen few gains from one generation to the next. Poor children here faced especially long odds against upward mobility.
The difference is starkest when looking at the outcomes for black men, especially those born and raised in poor neighborhoods.
That was true for black men across the country. Regardless of what their parents made, black men who were in their early to mid-30s in 2015 earned less than their white peers in 99 percent of the 70,000 Census tracts in the United States.
But the researchers found that race and starting income didn't tell the whole story. Where kids grew up also shaped their chances of climbing out of poverty.
There were few places in Cuyahoga County area where poor children were projected to have better outcomes. Most of them were in wealthier suburbs, like Beachwood and Shaker Heights.
But those were the exceptions, not the rule. “There’s not a whole lot of places that look very high opportunity,” Friedman said while reviewing Cleveland’s results with The Plain Dealer.
He noted the sharp divide in overall economic outcomes between the city and the suburbs.
Figuring out the 'why'
Still, Friedman said, pockets exist everywhere that seem to offer poor children at least slightly better chances.
Identifying such places opens the door to more study on the ground to figure out “why.”
In general, the research points a few things that seem to matter in neighborhoods that create opportunity.
Low racial bias
Stable incomes and affordable rents
The presence of fathers in the neighborhood.
One thing that didn’t matter as much as was a “booming economy” or the kind of job growth that attracts talent from the outside rather than creating jobs for those already living in a city.
Opportunity Insights researchers identified dozens of neighborhoods across the country as opportunity “bargains.” There, stable incomes and affordable rents -- $1,500 a month or less – promised better odds of success for low-income children who lived there.
The entire state of Ohio contained not a single such “bargain.”
Tracing roots, exploring possibilities
The Plain Dealer got an early chance to use The Opportunity Atlas to explore outcomes for Cleveland-area children.
Here’s a few things we saw.
You can check it out here.