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Life in the Land of (Low) Opportunity

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Last Sunday, the Boston Globe ran a long story about the distribution of subsidized housing in Greater Boston, built on the premise that the benefits of moving low-income families from “low opportunity” inner city neighborhoods to suburbs are so obvious and clear – even at a time when wealth and investment are pouring into the region’s urban core – that the failure of low-income families to make the move is either a symptom of a) policy failure, or b) the failure of the families themselves to realize what they’re missing or to muster the courage to make the leap.

There is a lot to unpack in that, but this blog post is about something different. It is about the discovery that one of those “low opportunity” urban neighborhoods is mine.

The Globe used the Child Opportunity Index developed by diversitydatakids.org at the Heller School at Brandeis University and the Kirwan Institute at Ohio State to track the distribution of subsidized housing in Greater Boston by level of neighborhood opportunity. When I went to look up my neighborhood on the index, I was helpfully informed that my Census tract had “High” health and environmental opportunity due to our proximity to healthy food retailers, parks and health care facilities, and our distance from toxic dischargers.

That’s where the good news ends, however. Our neighborhood was ranked “Low” for educational opportunity based on adult educational attainment, the poverty rate for the three nearest schools, fourth grade test scores at those schools, the city of Boston’s high school dropout rate, and our proximity to early education centers. And, alarmingly, we were ranked “Very Low” for social and economic opportunity as measured by neighborhood foreclosure rate, poverty rate, unemployment rate and other indicators.

The overall conclusion: apparently, for the last 17 years, I’ve been raising two kids in a “low opportunity” neighborhood. It could have been worse: five blocks north or west and we would have been in a “very low opportunity” neighborhood. But it also could have been better, as just one block away sits a “moderate opportunity” neighborhood, whose radiant promise shines out to us across Ashmont Street the way the beacon of American prosperity shone to my ancestors from Eastern Europe generations ago.

I’m being a bit unfair here, I know. As a policy analyst, I’ve played a role in developing indices before. They’re never perfect and are always simplistic representations of the thing you’re trying to capture.

But the history of urban policy over the last century suggests that the words we use to describe our city neighborhoods matter – a lot. “Blighted,” “slum,” “obsolete,” “declining” – these neighborhood descriptors fueled 20th century policy choices that often did urban neighborhoods and the people that lived in them no favors. And often, they failed even as accurate descriptors, ignoring assets, resources and social structures that made those communities more livable than they may have seemed from the outside.

There is something similarly loaded – and potentially damning – about being labeled an area of “low opportunity,” especially in a place where the day-to-day experience often feels very different.

I’ve written about my experience of raising kids in the city on this blog before, but when I look at my surroundings, I do not see a neighborhood lacking in opportunity. I see a place that’s a half-hour transit commute from more than 50,000 jobs. I see a neighborhood within a mile of several excellent public and charter schools that serve a diverse array of kids every day. I see a place that is walking distance from two libraries and several amazing parks, and a short T ride away from all of the cultural riches of Boston.

I also see other things that aren’t as easily captured in statistics: the neighborhood watches, vibrant faith communities, youth sports leagues and enrichment programs, and people devoted to hard work and family. I see many neighbors who set good and positive examples for my kids to emulate, and a community that rallies together when the chips are down.

For all that, though, there is one thing that my neighborhood isn’t: rich. The Census Bureau stats for our tract don’t lie: our median household income is 15% below the state average (which, in turn, is lower than the metro area average). Adult educational attainment is below average as well.

And there are people in our neighborhood who struggle with all sorts of challenges, including poverty. It turns out that proximity to poor people matters quite a bit in the Child Opportunity Index, and not in a good way. There is a logic to this: growing up only around other poor people can be limiting in that a child never gets to see the full range of opportunities available to him or her in life, and typically lacks access to the kind of resources that can enable them to take advantage of those opportunities. Having spent most of my childhood in a neighborhood now labeled “very low opportunity,” I know a bit about what that looks and feels like – about the way that upper-middle-class notions of success can be inconceivable or feel unattainable to kids with little personal experience of them. And my situation was a cakewalk compared to the complex, difficult lives led by people stuck in deep poverty today.

So my point isn’t that concentrated poverty isn’t real or doesn’t matter, or even that indices like this one might not be useful for helping to point it out. Rather, it is that if the term “low opportunity” can be applied to a place like my neighborhood – a place that I’ve always seen, and I don’t think inaccurately, as awash in opportunity – we might need to think twice about what “opportunity” means and how we talk about it.

First, we need to ask whether the measures we use to gauge opportunity give proper value to the kinds of assets present, and experiences possible, in neighborhoods like mine. Perhaps the savvy and resilience a child develops in navigating a complex and imperfect (though not dangerous) world might, under the right circumstances, be valuable in a way that being raised in a wealthy neighborhood where poverty or even working-class norms are mere abstractions is not.

Second, we need to acknowledge the present-day reality, which is that many low-income people aren’t flocking to leave so-called “low opportunity” neighborhoods in economically vibrant cities like Boston. Rather, they’re fighting to be able to stay. The benefits of urban living, long concealed by the kinds of stereotypes baked into the Globe piece, are becoming apparent to people with higher levels of economic resources – and that is driving up demand for urban housing, along with prices, especially in many urban core neighborhoods we used to call “inner city.” We could debate the merits of moving poor families to the suburbs in general, but to prioritize it as a policy solution at a time when the region is going through something that looks a lot like the “Great Inversion” feels, frankly, bizarre.

Third, we need to step back and look at the big picture. Building a few units of subsidized housing in Lexington or Newton isn’t a bad thing, and suburban Boston certainly has a lot to answer for in its failure to do so. But the solution to the broader housing crisis – which affects everyone and everything in the region – is most likely to be found in expanding access to housing where it is in demand: in proximity to the urban core and near public transportation. We can do this either through new construction or through transportation improvements that bring areas such as the Commonwealth’s formerly industrial “Gateway Cities” within convenient reach of greater economic opportunity. One can say what one will about the “poverty housing industry” derided in the Globe piece, and I am in no position to comment on it, but one thing is indisputable: they built housing. In core neighborhoods. When no one else would. From the perspective of 2016, that is an incredibly valuable thing to have done.

As for me, as I’ve written before, I’ve found living and raising kids in our neighborhood to provide value beyond compare. People who might once have chosen to raise their kids in the suburbs are catching on.  If we want to preserve and build on what’s great about our neighborhoods while also extending real opportunity – as well as to foster a transition to more sustainable, low-carbon ways of living – we need to recognize what is uniquely valuable about the urban experience and focus on what we can do, systematically, to improve it and provide access to that experience for all who wish to enjoy it.