Low Opportunity Areas Often Decades in the Making, But Solutions Are There

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Photo courtesy Flickr/Arul Irudayam

Thanks to a new interactive tool, we now know what opportunity looks like in all areas of Dallas. And that tool confirms what many who follow income disparity have known all along — it frequently is manifest most in geography, where decades of policy have wrought pockets of opportunity gaps throughout the city.

The Opportunity Atlas is the result of work done by economist Raj Chetty, his Harvard colleagues, and Census Bureau’s Sonya Porter and Maggie Jones. It uses tax and U.S. Census data to track people’s incomes from one generation to the next.

What it found is that opportunity and income go hand-in-hand, and that in most if not all areas, blocks and neighborhoods don’t magically and suddenly become low income and low opportunity hot spots — they’ve been that way for years.

And more discouraging, children who grew up in those neighborhoods frequently reach adulthood and have families of their own, and make the same low wages their parents did.

“We’re excited that the Census Bureau can provide the public with access to social mobility estimates for the first time through the Opportunity Atlas,” said Ron Jarmin, Deputy Director, and Performing the Non-Exclusive Functions and Duties of the Director of the Census Bureau. “The Atlas has great social significance because no one has ever had access to social mobility estimates at such a granular level.”

The Opportunity Atlas measured average outcomes of Americans by the neighborhood they grew up in. A sample of almost 21 million Americans born between 1978 and 1983 were tacked back to the neighborhoods they were born and raised in, and then income tax returns and census data were used to measure annual earnings.

As part of my research, I looked at the census tracts around three Dallas ISD schools that currently or have had the Improvement Required designation from the Texas Education Agency, meaning that they did not meet state standards.

All three — JJ Rhoads Learning Center, Elisha Pease Elementary, and O.W. Holmes Middle School — are in areas where income is below $20,000 a year.

But why is that? To get a better handle on what is at play, I turned to a local staple that I frequently rely on to get a better visual on data — Robert Mundinger’s site, The Map, which allows you to flip through various overlays that vary from economic factors, demographics, education, and more.

But first I compared two maps — the Opportunity Index Map and the Redlining Map — and was wholly unsurprised to find that the areas where opportunities and incomes are low fit squarely within areas that were red and yellow lined in the 1930s.

Dallas Redlining Map (courtesy TheMap.io)
Opportunity Index Dallas (courtesy TheMap.io)

Why was I unsurprised? Because three years ago I saw similar overlays in a meeting at Children’s Health, where researchers there and researchers with Ohio State’s Kirwan Institute showed us redlining maps, and then overlays that demonstrated the effects that policy had to this day on the health, opportunity, and education of the inhabitants of those areas.

Redlining began after the Home Owners Refinancing Act of 1933, which created the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, or HOLC. The HOLC raised funds through government-backed bonds, purchased defaulted mortgages and then reinstated them. The agency also changed the terms for mortgages entirely, creating the mortgage as we know it now – fully amortized mortgages that were fixed rate and long-term.

In order to determine how the Federal Housing Authority (which was created in part to guarantee mortgages) would determine how much risk it would assume on a mortgage, the HOLC assessed neighborhoods. Maps were colored in – green was a first-grade area, which meant that home buyers would be able to qualify for a loan that would be guaranteed by the FHA for up to 80 percent, meaning you only needed 20 percent down. Blue meant you were in a B area, or second grade, and would qualify for 60-80 percent. Yellow was a C, or third grade, and would only qualify for 15 percent (which means you’d need to put up 85 percent down). Any area shaded with angry red lines – aka redlining – would not qualify for any loan.

Green areas were exclusively white, Anglo and Protestant. Blue areas were mostly white, but were other ethnic origins like Jews, Italians, and Irish, but still upwardly mobile. Yellow areas were a mix of ethnicities – including black – and poor. Redlined areas were almost exclusively black.

A map of loss of lifespan (i.e. years of life lost per racial group) compiled by Parkland, when compared to a 1937 HOLC map, illustrates the long-lasting effects of a policy that was enacted more than 80 years ago. A Kirwan Institute map measuring child opportunities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area shows similar results.

The practice continued until it was outlawed in 1968, meaning that it went on unabated for almost 30 years — plenty of time to do an immense amount of damage.

“Throughout the 20th century, government policies and actions at the federal, state and local levels all contributed to the systematic investment in exclusively white suburbs, while denying similar levels of investment to black and Latino neighborhoods and households,” an article in NextCity examining the similarities between the boundaries found on the Opportunity Atlas and redlining boundaries said. “The resulting disparities of investment available based on race filtered through history into differing outcomes with regard to household income and wealth, as well as disparate access to well-funded schools, parks and other amenities.”

All of this is not to say that these children are doomed to live in poverty — but that without substantive policy changes in many sectors (including the educational arena and the affordable housing arena), the opportunities will continue to elusive, but not unattainable.

How do we know this? We can look at Dallas ISD as a prime example. Just five years ago, 43 schools (many of them square in these angry red pockets of town on the Opportunity Atlas) were IR. Now, there are four. In the state’s recent A-F scores, only 11 schools in the entire state made a perfect score — Dallas ISD had six of those schools.

But I’ve long maintained that affordable housing policy and public education policy don’t just intersect — they’re intertwined. So much of what happens outside the schoolhouse doors impacts what happens on the inside, and until more policy seeks to address that, more and more of the burden of addressing those needs falls to urban school districts like Dallas ISD.

What would policy change look like? For that, it might take some thinking outside the box. But the National Low Income Housing Coalition recently reviewed a case study that tracked what happened when housing policy was also treated as education policy.

The case study looked at Montgomery County, Maryland, which began a comprehensive inclusionary housing program decades ago. And interestingly enough, Montgomery County is regarded as having one of the best school systems in the country.

“Private-sector housing developers across the county must set-aside a percentage of apartment homes to be sold at below-market rates,” the NLIHC said. “A unique feature of the program is that housing authorities can purchase some of these housing units and operate them as federally subsidized housing.”

From there, a randomized lottery was held and low-income families were selected to live in the units. The study compared the educational performance of children living in public housing in low-poverty neighborhoods to children living in public housing in higher-poverty schools and found that the former outperformed the latter significantly in the five to seven year period she examined.

“In fact, public housing students attending the lower-poverty schools narrowed the achievement gap with their wealthier peers by half in math and one-third in reading,” the review said.

And this premise was shored up by the findings of the researchers who designed the Opportunity Atlas, too.
“Moving at birth from a below-average to an above-average mobility neighborhood within the same county would increase the lifetime earnings of a child growing up in a low-income family by approximately $200,000,” Porter and Jones wrote. “Children who grow up in areas with better outcomes are also less likely to be incarcerated or to become a teen parent.”

“The lesson to be drawn from these findings is not necessarily that moving is the best solution for increasing upward mobility, but rather that the low rates of upward mobility in some areas can be changed,” they added.

Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum also found that interventions outside the schoolhouse can have a direct impact on the success of a student as well. Research shows, he said, that specific anti-poverty interventions can actually counteract the harm that comes with poverty.

“These programs — or other methods of increasing family income — boost students’ test scores, make them more likely to finish high school, and raise their chances of enrolling in college,” he wrote.

What are some other ways to improve opportunity in these low-opportunity areas? Studies show (including the Maryland case study) that making sure that schools in those areas have access to funding to help address student needs that often go beyond just reading, writing and arithmetic. Access to quality early childhood education that is all-day (statistics show that participation in pre-K programs increases when the schedule more closely resembles a workday for the parents) is another proven way.

Both of those, by the way, are things that would directly benefit from Dallas ISD’s current Tax Ratification Election.

Bethany Erickson is the education, consumer affairs, and public policy columnist for CandysDirt.com. She is a member of the Online News Association, the Education Writers Association, and the Society of Professional Journalists, and is the 2018 NAREE Gold winner for best series. Contact her at bethany@candysdirt.com.


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Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson lives in a 1961 Fox and Jacobs home with her husband, a second-grader, and Conrad Bain the dog. If she won the lottery, she'd by an E. Faye Jones home. She's taken home a few awards for her writing, including a Gold award for Best Series at the 2018 National Association of Real Estate Editors journalism awards, a 2018 Hugh Aynesworth Award for Editorial Opinion from the Dallas Press Club, and a 2019 award from NAREE for a piece linking Medicaid expansion with housing insecurity. She is a member of the Online News Association, the Education Writers Association, the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, and the Society of Professional Journalists. She doesn't like lima beans or the word moist.

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