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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Beginnings in Marseille

Marseille         After a truck key exchange in the New Orleans airport with our son, returning from Turkey and Bulgaria, we flew to Newark and then onto Geneva, where we experienced the most efficient customs and luggage handling experience ever, putting us at the ticket counter for the shuttle train into the main station within thirty minutes of our arrival.  Rather than running to make the 905, we found ourselves having an espresso with time on our hands.  A shuttle to the Geneva station and then a train change in Lyon found us arriving in Marseille to a warm sun and sea breezes on a promenade outside the station overlooking parts of the city.

Hours later we met Jason and Arthur, two young men who had been working since September to build an organization in what they told us was the poorest population district in Marseille and the country as a whole.  I had thought that Aubervilliers, where we have a strong organization in the Paris suburbs, held that title.  They clarified that Aubervilliers was the poorest municipal district, but this area around Belle de Mai in Marseille was the poorest area within any city in France, similar to what we would call the poorest census tract in the USA.  The area was a haven for a mix of recent immigrants and lower income, working families in apartment blocks near what had been a factory district for sugar, tobacco and other imports coming in as raw resources from French colonies and made into finished products within minutes of the central train station and the port.

It was a warm day and a hot night, and people were all over the streets, as we made our way to the office space near where they were organizing.  Adrien Roux, head organizer of ACORN’s affiliate Alliance Citoyenne, had spent most of the day doing training with their emerging organizing committee.  Arthur had worked previously for several months with our group in Aubervilliers.  More than a dozen folks assembled to watch The Organizer documentary and ask questions about ACORN, its roots, and its work elsewhere.  There were some technical issues that delayed the film as the transfer was made between disks, links, hard drives and computers to get the French translation right.  We filled the time with a preview of the film and questions and answers about ACORN.  One veteran of earlier sessions in Frankfurt was a surprise member of the team, so there was an “old hand” of sorts there as well.

Finally, the film was rolling, though we stopped it a bit after 9 pm, following the time-tested rule of respecting people’s time in meetings.  The questions were more pointed now.  Fake news and Fox News were common themes in Marseille due to Trump’s now long forgotten screed about neighborhoods that people were afraid to go near in Europe because of the Muslim menace he keeps trying to use to incite his base.  We talked about lessons and voter registration which turned out to have been an earlier discussion in the training as well.

They are off to a good start.  We wished we could stay longer, because Marseille could be an important organizational link for our development in France.

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