Opportunity Insights/U.S. Census Bureau

New research shows that communities just miles apart that look similar may offer vastly different chances to climb up the economic ladder.

Tucked into southwestern Detroit is a predominantly Spanish-speaking immigrant hub called Springwells Village. It’s not a wealthy area, with median income at $31,000. And the rents are relatively low, at $833 for a two-bedroom home.

But for low-income African American kids, it offers a better chance at upward mobility than most of the surrounding neighborhoods. Remarkably, black kids from poor families who grow up there are likely to have among the highest average household earnings as adults ($38,000), compared to other black children of similar economic backgrounds across the country.

Neighborhoods like Springwells Village are called “opportunity bargains”—relatively affordable areas that offer high chance of escaping poverty. While economic mobility is generally limited in the United States, especially for the poor and minorities, many such “opportunity bargains,” exist around the country, and have now been meticulously mapped in a new project by economists Raj Chetty, John Friedman, and Nathaniel Hendren in conjunction with the Census Bureau’s Maggie R. Jones and Sonya R. Porter.

The “Opportunity Atlas” contains a trove of data on median household income, incarceration rates, and marriage rates, and lets viewers dig down to the Census tract level, showing just how vastly different the future economic prospects of a child can look from one neighborhood to the next. The earlier a child moves to an above-average neighborhood, the greater the gain. On average, a family that moves from a neighborhood that has below-average opportunity to one that’s above-average at the time of a child’s birth can increase that child’s lifetime earnings as an adult by $200,000, and dramatically decreases the likelihood of incarceration, according to the new research. That’s $9,000 more per year than someone who moves in their 20s.

Screenshot of the interactive Opportunity Atlas. (Opportunity Insights/U.S. Census Bureau)

The map reaffirms that neighborhoods matter, but also provides insights into how much and why. “Having that granularity of data really starts to help us ask questions that policymakers weren’t able to ask and answer in precise ways before,” said David Williams, the policy director of Opportunity Insights, a partnership between economists at Harvard University and Brown University that created the map.

Generally, the good neighborhoods tend to have some combination of a few quantifiable traits: less economic and racial segregation, less inequality, better performing schools, lower crime, and more two-parent families. Intangible factors like “social cohesion” may also be at play, Williams said.

But zooming into Detroit on the map makes it clear that there’s plenty of complexity on the ground. Good neighborhoods for one group may not present the same opportunity to another. (Notably, Springwells Village isn’t all that great for low-income Hispanic kids, compared their counterparts elsewhere in the country.) Areas with rich residents and higher job growth—indicators traditionally associated with high-opportunity neighborhoods—aren’t necessarily always the ones offering better prospects for all kids. And the poor areas? They aren’t all bad.

Using this map, its creators hope that local governments and nonprofits can hone in on the attributes of their own region’s high-opportunity neighborhoods, and use that information to inform the choices of low-income residents who are looking to move, say, using housing vouchers. Or, they can replicate the lessons from a high-opportunity neighborhood elsewhere in their city.

“[The map] lets us really think in a more nuanced way, and figure out beyond the surface-level indicators we've had to rely on for a very long time, what are the other things happening beneath the surface in these neighborhoods that really impact these outcomes,” said Williams, who used to work on economic development at the Mayor’s office in Detroit.

So what’s happening in Springwells Village? It could be a combination of factors: Perhaps it’s that the kids who grow up there are very likely to have a father figure (in map below), or it has a network of churches that can cater to the communities, or it could be something else—some other reason that’s harder to discern. The mapping tool doesn’t provide all the answers, just a “springboard,” for policymakers to go deeper, Williams said.

Kids growing up in the highlighted tract of Springwells Village are among the likeliest to have father figures in their household. (Opportunity Insights/U.S. Census Bureau)

Williams points to a number of neighborhoods in Northwest Detroit that have good outcomes for low income black children. The Grandmont-Rosedale area is one, with median income ranging from $55,000 to $73,000 and rents between $600 and $1,800. It’s over 90 percent non-white. The incarceration rate is quite low. Wendy Jackson is a resident of North Rosedale, and the managing director of The Kresge Foundation’s Detroit program, which seeks to make investments that support civic and economic life in the city. She believes the secret of her high-opportunity neighborhood is that it offers tremendous assets. “It's the parks, the libraries—those aspects of civic life that keep folks connected and grounded in place,” Jackson said.

Sherwood Forest is another interesting case. Its stately, historic homes are much higher in value than they were a decade ago. It has since seen an influx of younger white and black families, but it is still currently majority non-white. Maurice Telesford has lived through that transformation. The 34-year-old school teacher moved there 10 years ago, and now is on the board of directors of the neighborhood association there. He plans to raise his young daughter in Sherwood Forest largely because of the community it offers. During the recession, he recalls that the neighborhood association appointed block captains to monitor vacant homes and made sure they were kept in good condition. Today, in more prosperous times, the group routinely organizes events such as “meet-and-greets” in people’s homes and summer picnics with food trucks and petting zoos for the kids.

“It's easy to know your neighbor, and to connect socially and through other avenues, if you want to,” said Telesford.

He’s on the money—literally. Sherwood Forest is a much better place to grow up for black children than, say, the University District neighborhood just to the south, which offers $14,000 less in average household income. Again, this may be due to a combination of factors: the high average household income ($130,000); its low share of single parents; and, as Telesford points out, its close-knit community.

Sherwood Forest is the deep blue Census tract highlighted in north central Detroit, and Springwells Village is the deep blue sliver in southwest Detroit. (Opportunity Insights/U.S. Census Bureau)

Already, previous work by Chetty and his colleagues has been shaping Detroit’s neighborhoods. Jackson, who works at the Kresge Foundation, said that in 2016, her program started underscoring the importance of neighborhood effects for children. Its recent investments include a “cradle to career” early childhood development partnership and a new park—both around the relatively affordable, high-opportunity Livernois-Fitzgerald area south of Sherwood Forest. Using the Atlas Opportunity tool, she envisions being able to diagnose problems in Detroit’s neighborhoods with surgical precision and tailor interventions that further level the playing field for children across geography.

“The path to prosperity for Detroiters begins in neighborhoods,” she said. “These are the places that can launch children and families on a trajectory of success or trapped in profound inequality.”

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