Will Opportunity Mapping take us in the wrong direction?

In an effort to bring greater attention to the persistent racial and economic segregation in Massachusetts, the Kirwin Institute  published a report in 2009 called the Geography of Opportunity: Building Opportunity in Massachusetts. The report documents the high level of racial and economic segregation that persists in our state and that people of color are much more likely than white people to live in areas of concentrated poverty, which the Kirwin Institute calls “low opportunity” communities. The report provides important insight into residential housing patterns in our Commonwealth, and provides a tool for documenting how certain investments are either improving the situation or making it worse.

While concentrated poverty and racial segregation are serious problems, I believe the report is flawed and potentially counter-productive.  So I was troubled to learn, at a recent meeting in New York hosted by the Ford Foundation, that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is considering the development of its own “opportunity score” for each community in America. HUD hopes to use these scores as part of a comprehensive revamping of their fair housing agenda and strategy to ensure that housing and other policies do not contribute to further concentration of poverty and racial segregation.

This is a worthy goal, so why do I fear that such maps may take us in the wrong direction?

First, the notion that a single measuring device, no matter how many data points are used, could fairly evaluate the opportunities available in every community in America is absurd on its face. The United States is home to thousands of communities – each one unique and valuable in its own ways. A single homogenized score that averages dozens of statistics into a single number obscures that truth.

Second, our country is home to millions of different households with unique individuals seeking different opportunities. Young adults want something different than senior citizens; families with children have different priorities than those without; artists may seek different communities than scientists or farmers. People want and need different things so creating a single measurement for “opportunity” is impossible and inappropriate.  (By contrast, Wider Opportunities for Women developed tailored their "self sufficiency standard" for different types and sized families.)

Third, let’s look at the Kirwin Institute methodology. They use 16 data points to create an overall assessment of a particular community’s “opportunity.” Six of those are various measures of poverty; several others relate to school achievement (which we know is highly correlated with poverty) and others relate to economic opportunity and crime. This provides a clear guide for how a community can improve its score - push out (or keep out) low income families with children. This is by far the single best way for a community to improve its opportunity score. Perhaps more troubling is what the Kirwin Institute left out of its methodology – museums, public transit, affordable housing, after school programs, youth programs, grocery stores, local businesses, higher education, day care, senior citizen centers, parks. Don’t these things offer opportunities too?

Fourth, If HUD adopts a similar approach, the scores will take on even more importance. Local governments could devise policies to lift their scores, real estate brokers could use them to steer homebuyers; bankers could use them to guide loan decisions; insurance companies could use them to set premiums; developers could review them when making investment decisions. Opportunity mapping would make redlining – formal and informal - much easier!

I do not mean to suggest that there is nothing wrong in neighborhoods with high rates of concentrated poverty, high levels of crime and “bad” schools (how we define bad schools could be the topic of a yet another article!)  We should draw attention to those issues. But if we want to highlight communities with high rates of crime then let’s call them “communities with high rates of crime.” If we want to identify low income neighborhoods, let’s call them “low income communities.”  Those are specific and factual statements. But “opportunity” is far too complex and subjective for the Kirwin Institute, HUD or anyone to fairly and accurately label every community in America.

A few years ago, community developers began rethinking their neighborhoods by looking at their assets not just their needs. The idea of “asset based community development” was built on the idea that our communities have assets that should be developed rather than simply needs that need to be served. Opportunity mapping undermines that effort by ignoring those assets.

And perhaps the most dangerous impact that these maps could have – especially one created by the Federal Government – is that they will devastate efforts to entice middle class people back to our cities, something that is vital to addressing racial and economic segregation. In fact, these maps will encourage even more white flight from our Nation’s cities. Having the Federal Government declare a community as "low opportunity" is a sure fire way to encourage middle class families – whites and non-whites – to get out of town.

The notion that the path to opportunity lies in the suburbs is a big part of the reason we have seen racial segregation persist over so many decades. Why would we want to join that chorus?



Thanks Joe!

Academics are particularly enthralled with the idea of measuring and indexing urban attributes, from walkscores to sustainability factors to these opportunity maps. Shorthand indices constructed from unreliable or unrelated bits of information certainly have the potential to direct us into useless or even harmful policies. Let's resist the easy labeling and insist on broader descriptive measures and incorporate the self-characterizations of people who live in these "branded" areas!

It's good to be leery of labels, but I'm not as worked worked up about the latest jargon and toolkit -- and you know how much we love community development toolkits.

I thought by now that you would have developed an immunity to all of the maps, matrices, studies, frameworks, and what-have-you that find yet another way to tell us where poor people are.

They coulda saved a lot of money by asking a cab driver.

They are simply academics and policy wonks cry to get people to think about persistent social inequality. Not a bad thing these days. It is also a lot of fun to use GIS and show PowerPoint slides to your friends.

The real question to ask is if they clarify anything and if they provoke us to action.

I, too, am a skeptic about the value of the Kirwin index in shaping policy generally, and in allocating scarce resources in particular.

You might be interested to know that the first 10-15 year health data from HUD's Moving to Opportunity were finally released with an article in the New England Journal of Medicine today.

Study design:
"From 1994 through 1998, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
randomly assigned 4498 women with children living in public housing in highpoverty
urban census tracts (in which ≥40% of residents had incomes below the
federal poverty threshold) to one of three groups: 1788 were assigned to receive
housing vouchers, which were redeemable only if they moved to a low-poverty census
tract (where <10% of residents were poor), and counseling on moving; 1312 were
assigned to receive unrestricted, traditional vouchers, with no special counseling on
moving; and 1398 were assigned to a control group that was offered neither of these
opportunities. From 2008 through 2010, as part of a long-term follow-up survey, we
measured data indicating health outcomes, including height, weight, and level of
glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c)."

"The opportunity to move from a neighborhood with a high level of poverty to one
with a lower level of poverty was associated with modest but potentially important
reductions in the prevalence of extreme obesity and diabetes. The mechanisms underlying
these associations remain unclear but warrant further investigation..."

The final paragraph of the article suggests that understanding of the beneficial aspects of living in high opportunity communities can be useful in designing mechanisms to address the causes of low opportunity, rather than an argument to leave the problems behind and head for greener pastures.
"The results of this study, together with those of previous studies documenting the large social costs of obesity and diabetes, raise the possibility that clinical or public health interventions that ameliorate the effects of neighborhood environment
on obesity and diabetes could generate substantial social benefits. The mechanisms
accounting for these associations remain unclear, but further investigation is warranted to provide guidance in designing neighborhood-level interventions
to improve health."

I couldn't agree with you more, Joe. "Opportunity mapping" violates the first maxim of community development in my view: First, do no harm. It doesn't help and it can do serious harm.

It is de facto redlining, only this time, it's by the alleged "good guys," or at least, people who are attempting to act in the service of good. As Pogo once said, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

It is labeling a group of people based upon dubious classifications. As you rightly note, these inadequate definitions of opportunity can perpetuate stereotypes and encourage middle class flight and disinvestment.

Manufacturing new, subjective labels for our communities doesn't help. Poverty, segregation, crime, and economic opportunity in our communities are challenging enough. Let's not exacerbate them by conjuring new measures that obfuscate rather than enlighten.