Measuring Opportunity across America: A good idea but it’s all about the details


Where you grow up in America powerfully influences your prospects in life.

A new Child Opportunity Index compiled by Brandeis University researchers reconfirms this important truth about our country’s economic mobility. But it begs some critical questions: Why do some cities and neighborhoods dramatically outperform others for economic mobility, and what should policymakers do to promote opportunity everywhere?

It’s true that it helps to be rich. Neighborhood income levels predict children’s economic mobility. Metros in America’s richest regions – the Northeast corridor and the West Coast – outperform on the Brandeis index. Those in the nation’s poorest areas – Appalachia, the deep South outside large cities, the Rio Grande Valley, and inland California – underperform.

But there are other critical factors that make a big difference in local generation-to-generation upward mobility, as a recent report from the George W. Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative makes clear. They include social capital – connectedness, civic engagement, and trust among people that make a community tick – along with quality of life. These are the areas where policymakers should focus their efforts.

One way to gauge opportunity is by observing where Americans are moving from and to, as Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative research has done. Metros that score reasonably well for incomes but also better than average for affordability, mostly in the Sun Belt, rank as high-opportunity places by this metric. But they make a poor showing on the Brandeis report.

For instance, Utah, which leads the nation on a social capital index developed by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, is an upward mobility superstar despite middling income levels. In terms of quality of life, cities with strong housing supply growth and thus better affordability are higher opportunity places, all else equal.

The Brandeis study makes a compelling case for policies to boost opportunity in struggling localities and to help lower-income people move to higher-opportunity places, similar to the message in a 2020 Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative report on promoting economic mobility in U.S. cities.

But it misses the mark in offering a policy agenda for economic mobility in America’s left-behind places:

First, it doesn’t measure what the study aims to measure. It includes metrics such as adult education levels, employment, and health insurance coverage, which all strongly correlate with neighborhood income levels, but it omits any measure of affordability. Had the Brandeis researchers included affordability measures, expensive metros like New York and Los Angeles would have scored less well for child opportunity.

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J.H. Cullum Clark is Director, Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative and an Adjunct Professor of Economics at SMU. Within the Economic Growth Initiative, he leads the Bush Institute's work on domestic economic policy and economic growth. Before joining the Bush Institute and SMU, Clark worked in the investment industry for 25 years.

Photo: courtesy Bush Center.