Of all the predictors of a child’s health and development, neighborhood is among the most telling, new data show.
Researchers at Brandeis University culled data from the nation’s 72,000 census tracts to understand how a child’s neighborhood influences his or her opportunities over time. What they found were stark divides along racial and ethnic lines, as well as glaring “opportunity gaps” within many metro areas, even among children raised in adjoining neighborhoods.
“It wasn’t clear to us that each metro area would be so different in that regard,” said Clemens Noelke, who co-authored the report. “What we see across the country is something that’s structural about American society.”
Neighborhoods were rated and assigned an “opportunity level” ranging from “very low” to “very high” on such factors as access to early-childhood education; high school graduation rates; the share of adults in high-skill jobs; poverty rates; air pollution levels; and housing vacancy rates. They focused on the nation’s 100 largest metro areas – home to 67 percent of American children – and published their findings as Child Opportunity Index 2.0, which expands on one released in 2014.
Researchers said they were especially struck – though not entirely surprised – by the opportunity gaps between white children and children of color. Across the nation’s largest metro areas, 46 percent of black children and 32 percent of Hispanic children live in “very low” opportunity neighborhoods. Moreover, black children are 7.6 times and Hispanic children 5.3 times more likely to live in very low-opportunity neighborhoods than white children.
Take Detroit, where researchers focused on two adjacent neighborhoods. In one, fewer than one in 20 people live in poverty. Nearly three-quarters of the adults had a college degree, and nearly 90 percent of them are employed. Less than 1 percent of the houses are vacant.
In the second neighborhood, more than half the families struggle with poverty. Only one in eight adults has a college degree, and three in five have a job. Twenty-eight percent of the housing units sit vacant.
Of the nearly 830 children living in the first neighborhood, 94 percent are white. Of the roughly 1,000 children living in the second neighborhood, 94 percent are black.
Dolores Acevedo-Garcia, co-author of the report and director of Brandeis’ Institute for Child, Youth and Family Policy, said that “ethically, it would be untenable not to talk about the racial dimension.” Of the nearly 10 million children living in very low opportunity neighborhoods across the 100 largest metro areas, 4.5 million are Hispanic and 3.6 million are black.
At the bottom of the index was Bakersfield, California, where 21 percent of families live in poverty. Nearly one in four of its public school teachers have less than three years of professional experience. In Madison, Wisconsin, which topped the list, 9 percent of families live in poverty and one in 10 its teachers have limited experience.
Metro areas in the South tended to have lower scores than those further north, data show, and the effects don’t fade as kids cross into adulthood: Researchers found a seven-year difference in life expectancy between people who lived in very low-opportunity neighborhoods (75 years) and those who lived in very high ones (82 years).
Acevedo-Garcia and Noelke said their research should persuade policymakers, especially at the local level, to take a hard look at inequality in their communities and consider how policies can create opportunity barriers. That can range from housing policies that fuel racial segregation to a city’s strategic planning budget.
“Anyone that wants to walk away from this issue, and think it’s fine and is not going to affect all of us, is making a really bad assessment of the situation,” Acevedo-Garcia said.