What Determines Opportunity? (Hint: It’s Not One’s Bootstraps)

It’s the rare occasion when a significant social challenge is raised up in rigorous economic research and almost instantly answered by a creative and dynamic public policy response. Yet, in […]

It’s the rare occasion when a significant social challenge is raised up in rigorous economic research and almost instantly answered by a creative and dynamic public policy response. Yet, in broad strokes, that’s what’s happening on a critical question of equal opportunity in America.

Last month, a major study by researchers at Harvard and UC Berkeley reported that the metropolitan area in which Americans live profoundly affects their economic opportunity and, particularly, their upward mobility from one socioeconomic status to another. As Nathaniel Hendren, one of the study’s authors, told The New York Times, “Where you grow up matters….There is tremendous variation across the U.S. in the extent to which kids can rise out of poverty.”

Controlling for other relevant factors, residents of some metro areas including Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, Raleigh, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Columbus, experience especially low levels of economic mobility, whereas those in New York, Boston, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Seattle and large regions of California and Minnesota experience some of the highest. And there’s a wide spectrum in between.

Just as important as the list of high and low mobility areas are the factors that appear to influence upward mobility from poverty to the middle class (upper-income people were less affected by location than were others). While more research is needed, the study points to at least five factors that are associated with higher mobility in a region:

  • Socioeconomic and racial integration, meaning a more even distribution of people of different racial, ethnic, and economic groups, rather than concentrations of particular groups in certain neighborhoods;

  • Greater income equality—metro areas with a larger middle class instead of residents concentrated at the economic top and bottom.

  • Better elementary and high schools as measured by test scores, dropout rates, and higher spending per pupil;

  • Family structure, such as higher percentages of two-parent families; and

  • Greater civic engagement, including membership in religious and community groups.


(Larger tax credits for low-income families and higher taxes on the affluent also appear to improve income mobility slightly.)

The study indicates that these factors, rather than anything endemic to the specific residents in these regions, shape the opportunity to move ahead. Children who moved at a young age from a low-mobility area to a high-mobility one did almost as well as those who spent their entire childhoods in a higher-mobility area. But kids who did not arrive in high-mobility areas until they were teenagers did less well. In other words, these factors are part of a landscape of opportunity that enables significantly more people to move from poverty to the middle class and beyond over time.

As if on cue, just as these results were being reported, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued proposed regulations that are readymade to leverage the study’s findings toward greater national prosperity. The proposed HUD rule seeks to fulfill the department’s statutory obligation to affirmatively further fair housing in its programs and activities—including in projects around the country that receive HUD funds.

Those HUD-funded projects are diverse and high-impact, ranging from community planning and development initiatives to affordable housing construction to public housing and beyond. They serve millions of Americans in thousands of communities around the country.

And, importantly, state and local governments choose whether or not to seek HUD support. When they do so, they must abide by the rules set out in federal laws and agency regulations.

Of course, HUD’s proposed rule was not intentionally tied to the new research findings. The rule was in development since early in President Obama’s first term. And a range of organizations, including The Opportunity Agenda where I work, have been pressing for a regulation for years.

Nor is it a new idea that the geography of opportunity powerfully influences the lives and intergenerational progress of people in our country.  Research and experience have long taught that expanding the geographic network of opportunity is hugely important to both individual and societal progress. Indeed, a crucial principle of the 1968 Fair Housing Act is that access to a safe and affordable home near quality schools, transportation, and jobs is basic to the American Dream and to our nation’s future.

It does appear, however, that growing academic knowledge, media coverage, and activism helped to spark last month’s action by HUD. The “affirmatively further” obligation is a longstanding one, dating back to the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. But neither HUD nor most state or local governments have adequately implemented or enforced it. The title of a 2010 report by the non-partisan Government Accountability Office—“HUD Needs to Enhance Its Requirements and Oversight of Jurisdictions’ Fair Housing Plans”—is illustrative.

The proposed regulation is an important step forward for equal opportunity. It makes clear that states, cities, towns, and counties who seek federal taxpayer funds for housing or community development initiatives must proactively foster fair housing to ensure that what you look like, what accent you have, whether you have children or a disability, is no barrier to where you may call home.

The proposed rule also echoes the new findings from Harvard and UC Berkeley in several key respects. It makes clear that anti-discrimination measures, integrated housing patterns, and equal access to opportunities like quality schools, jobs, and transportation are all aspects of fair housing that HUD-funded projects must actively foster. It provides that HUD will supply data on these and other geographic patterns to inform public planning and to equip residents and homeseekers with the information to make informed decisions. And a public participation component will ensure that the use of public development funds is transparent and informed by a diversity of perspectives.

The proposed rule is not perfect. In particular, it lacks some of the accountability and enforcement measures that the Government Accountability Office and watchdog groups have identified as lacking in the past. It also needs greater clarity regarding the progress that federal fund recipients must make over time in order to fulfill their responsibilities under the rule. 

That’s why it’s important for people around the country to submit comments by September 18, 2013, endorsing the anti-discrimination, integration, and equal-opportunity principles, data, and community engagement elements of the regulation while calling for greater review and enforcement provisions, including periodic audits of localities’ compliance.

With those changes, a final regulation from HUD on affirmatively furthering fair housing will support thriving, diverse communities to meet the challenges of the 21st century.  Removing unnecessary barriers to equal opportunity like antiquated zoning rules and concentrating residents in segregated neighborhoods is the smart thing to do, as well as the right thing to do.


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