Charting Inequity with the Opportunity Atlas

New Orleans        Reading about Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his Opportunity Atlas, led me to check it out.  The overarching lesson of the atlas is that your chances of doing better, in other words social and economic mobility, are tracked closely to you state, city, and neighborhood.  All of which is a depressing state of affairs for America, our people, and the future of our democracy, but also something inherently interesting of course.  You know, personally, what are the odds?

If I looked at our children for example, what are their odds having been raised in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans?  Well, there are a whole lot of criteria, but if I looked at parents’ income, meaning mi companera and myself, and colored the dot “middle,” also colored the dot “white,” I was struck by the results for our children when I looked at gender.  Our daughter had a chance from this neighborhood at $52,000 annual household income.  Our son on the other hand, $21,000 in household income, hardly a 40% shot of the statistical odds of our daughter.  Job growth in Bywater over a decade measured was only a shade over 5%, so fingers crossed.  Both could expect to pay $914 per month in rent.  Why in the world?  How is this right?

What chance would my father have had, being raised in Orange, California to lower income parents?  His shot would have been $42,000 in household income with average rent of $1,600 per month.   My mother from Drew, Mississippi, on other hand, $36,000 in household income with average rent of $415/month.

What about my brother and I when we graduated from high school in New Orleans, living on Burbank Drive?  We could have achieved $48,000 in household income with rents of $1100 per month.  Of course, that’s if we could find a job, since job growth in our old neighborhood has fallen by 19% in the period between 2004 and 2013.  Mi companera coming out of high school in Jacksonville, Arkansas, could see $43,000 household income with rents in the mid-$700’s and 5% job growth in that period, which would have put her in somewhat better shape, all things being equal perhaps.

Oh, by the way, average household income in the USA in 2017 was $59,039, a long climb up from all of the numbers we’re pulling for these locations in the atlas.

Of course, most of the neighborhoods where I’m pointing the arrow in the atlas, are in the South, urban and rural, except for Orange, California, and the Navy and World War II, got my father out of there and dropped him into the rest of the country.  Chetty notes that social mobility and prospects are less rigid and offer more opportunity in the West.  If my brother and I had been raised in Laramie, Wyoming where I was born, then my household income range could have gone as high as $56,000, even if job growth now is in a stalemate there.  If we’d stayed on the western slope in Rangely, Colorado where my brother was born, we would have fared worse than our odds in New Orleans by a couple of grand.

I hope you’re getting the message my friends, rising inequality is swamping all boats and only allowing a couple to rise.  Economic mobility outside of a couple of areas is frozen.  If you are raised in a rural community, your odds are worse.  If you’re a man, the odds are worse yet!

Double click on opportunityatlas.org.  Check out your own opportunity and that of your children.  Then raise your hand high if you finally understand that we have a huge problem here in the good ol’ USA!

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Town and Gown Partnerships:  East St. Louis Model

New Orleans        ACORN partnered with Ken Reardon and his team from various universities that he mobilized for the recovery after Katrina to create the Peoples’ Plan for the Ninth Ward.  His students and volunteers surveyed every property and assessed the level of damage and whether or not it could be affordably repaired, finding that the vast majority could be, and giving us ammunition to argument for support and redevelopment of our communities.  At that time almost fifteen years ago, he was the head of the Urban and Regional Planning at Cornell University, one of the largest such schools in the country.  Now he is in a similar post at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.  Talking to him on Wade’s World reminded me once again that in some ways we owed a debt for such a gift to his previous experience in building town and gown partnerships that actually worked in East St. Louis of all places when he was starting out his academic career as a young professor at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana.

Partially, we were talking about Ken’s new book, Building Bridges:  Community and University Partnerships in East St. Louis.  I knew the book inside and out, having read it from front to back a number of times while editing it for publication at Social Policy Press, where it is now available, as well as from the excerpt in the current issue of Social PolicyStill, listening to him answer the softball questions I was tossing out in the interview, I was struck by the gratitude we owned the good people in the half-dozen communities in that broken and deindustrialized, largely minority city, forlornly peering across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri, an afterthought and stepchild of Illinois.

In the almost mythical origin tale of these hard-won successes in East St. Louis from affordable house, light rail, parks, and other farmers’ markets, Reardon positions the story on the backs of Ceola Davis, an outreach worker at a neighborhood center, and seven other women she assembled to convince the university to embark on what would be a several decades partnership.  Davis had already “been there, done that” with researchers, plan writers, hustlers, and thieves.  From the first meeting she laid out clear principles, that Ken can still recite, that dictated the terms and conditions of any project, and, and along with Ken and his students and the resources they were able to develop, ensured that it was marriage of equals that could bridge the divides of race, class, and the rest of it.  They were the following:

  • Local residents would determine the projects for the partnership’s work.

  • Local residents would be equal partners in all aspects of the planning.

  • The university would make a five-year minimum commitment to the partnership.

  • Resources and capacity would be developed for the community and money would be split 50-50.

  • A permanent organization to continue the work would be developed before the partnership would be terminated.

There were ups and downs, fans and foes of the projects, but the chance of any such partnership succeeding would be greatly improved by revisiting and committing to something along the lines of what Reardon still reverentially calls, the Ceola Accords.

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