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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The Challenge and Opportunity in Mid-Sized Cities

New Orleans       One report after another these days seems to be raising the alarm that there is a huge sucking sound, as Ross Perot once spoke of another matter, as certain big, bigger, and best cities are amalgamating jobs, income, and people, especially the young, bright, and ambitious and leaving the rest of the country and its cities behind.

When Amazon originally picked the Washington, DC and New York area for its fabled second headquarters, there were anguished cries of disappointment that some other cities were not chosen that could have been transformed by the economic and population injection.  The very fact that Amazon was looking for a second city outside of Seattle also spoke to the rough edges dragging around cities that are making some winners and others losers in the competition for people and jobs.  Seattle didn’t have the housing, had lost affordability, was at the edge of its capacity in the Amazon argument.  Even the elements Amazon had on its shopping list were elite preferences for the human resources department in the company:  mass transit, world-class airports and universities, and amenities in food, entertainment and the like.  The executive cities like DC, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Austin, Vancouver, Toronto, London, Berlin, all have these kinds of characteristics.

Now new reports are indicating that mid-size and smaller cities are still growing in most cases, but are losing ground economically to the mega-magnet cities.  Cost of living is less, housing costs are reasonable, unemployment is low, but income between these cities is in many cases falling as the gap widens with the big cities.  Eduardo Porter, a much-missed economics columnist for the New York Times, reported on this phenomenon through the lens of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, but found the same issues in other mid-sized metro areas like Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky, Greensboro, North Carolina, and Bangor, Maine.  I could add Little Rock, El Paso, Birmingham, and Tampa, and as easily could cite the challenges in Milwaukee, Detroit, and Indianapolis.  I had dinner recently with someone who had just come from Jackson, Mississippi, and found little hope there for progress, and what is the real future for Shreveport and Baton Rouge, if these are the only items on the list for the future in a tech-dominated economy.

Yet, in these challenges, there are some certain opportunities.  In the ACORN archives recently, I ran into an old memorandum I had written about mid-sized cities, and why they represented outstanding targets for organizing in some ways because they were not the biggest cities in the country.  They were manageable.  One could more quickly see and operate the levers of power, contacts, and institutions and see and analyze the impacts of organizational actions.  The political access was closer to reach.  It was easier to see mistakes and adapt more quickly, and the errors were less fatal.  Admittedly, we called these “takeover” cities in our usual rash of exuberance and ambition, but couched in that concept were all of these factors as well as the shorter timeline to realize change.  The entry costs for experiments and innovation are less, and they are more scalable.

I’m not surprised that an ACORN could grow almost fifty years ago from roots in a Little Rock or that our affiliates other countries like France burst out from a Grenoble rather than Paris and in England from a Bristol, rather than London.  Channeling Horace Greely, I would argue “go there, young men and women!”  They are raw and ripe for the picking.

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