Why Neighborhoods—and the Policies that Shape Them—Matter

Jan 23, 2020, 2:00 PM, Posted by

The Child Opportunity Index 2.0 uses contemporary data to measure and map inequities in all 72,000 neighborhoods in the United States. The tool helps researchers, city planners, community leaders and others identify and address inequities in their metros.  

Boys and girls run and play in the park. Image credit: iStock

The Tale of Two Boys Growing Up in Cleveland

Let’s ask two hypothetical 9-year-old boys a question: What is it like to grow up in Cleveland? 

Each boy attends school, and enjoys riding his bike and playing with Legos. Both live in Cleveland. Beyond these similarities, their life experiences are—and will continue to be—starkly different based on multiple, complex factors that lie within their neighborhoods.

Neighborhood A 

The boy living in Neighborhood A faces a host of obstacles to opportunity and well-being. 

Economic adversity is the norm. One in four families struggle with poverty, and nearly 83 percent of his peers in school need free or reduced-price lunch.

The boy does not have many adults in his life who can serve as role models for educational attainment and employment. Less than 20 percent of adults in this neighborhood have earned a college degree. Also, less than 20 percent have a high-skill job. Low education and employment levels among adults in his neighborhood may instill low expectations of his own employment prospects, and he will have weaker networks of employed adults to help him find a good job when he grows up. 

This boy is growing up in a neighborhood with signs of distress. Nearly 25 percent of housing units are vacant, which increases the risk of fires, crime and drug use. It also signals that his neighborhood is in disrepair and has been neglected, which has negative effects on home values. As a result, his neighbors have limited household wealth, which makes families and the community even more economically vulnerable.

Neighborhood B

Another boy lives a few blocks away in Neighborhood B. He enjoys a community in which economic security is the norm. Only 2 percent of people live in poverty, and less than 20 percent of his peers are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

This boy has adults in his life that bolster his aspirations and confidence in the future. Almost two-thirds of adults in his neighborhood have a college degree, and two-thirds also have a high-skill job.

The physical conditions in his neighborhood signal to this child prosperity and safety. Only 2 percent of houses are vacant, and homeownership is almost universal (94 percent).

How do the boys’ neighborhoods support their healthy development? 

While the boys are hypothetical, the conditions described here are real.

Child Opportunity Level map.

The map above illustrates the differences in conditions favorable to healthy child development between very low- and very high-opportunity neighborhoods. As you can see, Neighborhood A’s opportunity level is very low, indicated as light blue, while Neighborhood B’s opportunity level is very high, indicated by dark blue.

This map was developed and analyzed using the Child Opportunity Index 2.0. Our team at Brandeis University created the first version of the Index in 2014. The map uses the updated and improved version of the Index, released on January 22, 2020. The new Index helps us understand how children are growing up today in every neighborhood in the United States.

The Child Opportunity Index 2.0 is a tool that quantifies, maps and compares neighborhood opportunity for children across the United States; unlike similar tools that are retrospective, this tool uses contemporary data to measure and map all 72,000 neighborhoods in the United States. Our first analysis of the Index looked at inequities in neighborhood opportunity within the 100 largest metros in the U.S.

Each U.S. neighborhood and each metro are assigned a Child Opportunity Score on a scale of 1 to 100, according to its percentile in the national child opportunity distribution. The Index ranks opportunity by looking at a wide range of neighborhood conditions—like the quality of schools, the number of adults with high-skill jobs, availability of green spaces, and air pollution levels—that shape kids’ health and development.

Cleveland has an overall Child Opportunity Score of 61. However, this measure masks wide inequities. For example, Neighborhood A above has a score of only 7 (one of the lowest in the country) and Neighborhood B has a score of 99 (nearly the very highest in the country).

The Index also allows users to see where children of different racial/ethnic groups live in each metro area in relation to neighborhood opportunity.

Who lives in Neighborhoods A and B?

Racial inequities are vast and pervasive in Cleveland and nationwide.

Map of Cleveland depicting opportunity levels by neighborhood.

The map above was developed using the Child Opportunity Index 2.0. It shows the racial/ethnic composition of Cleveland neighborhoods. The areas with yellow dots are neighborhoods where predominantly black children live. We can tell from the map that those tend to be lower opportunity neighborhoods (light blue). In contrast, areas with green dots, where predominantly white children live, tend to be higher opportunity neighborhoods. Of the 451 children living in Neighborhood A (very low opportunity), 78% are black, while of the 1,139 children in Neighborhood B (very high opportunity), 67% are white.  

Neighborhood A and B exemplify a stark pattern of inequity across Cleveland: the majority of black children (84%) are growing up in very-low and low-opportunity neighborhoods, like Neighborhood B. Cleveland has the third highest opportunity gap between white and black children among the 100 largest metros in the nation.

How long and how well will the boys live?

The simple fact that the boy in Neighborhood A lives in a low-opportunity neighborhood puts him—and the rest of his peers—at a lifelong disadvantage. His day-to-day life, and his life expectations and outcomes, are far more stark than the boy in Neighborhood B. Because Neighborhood A lacks neighborhood resources, it may negatively impact not only his childhood experiences but his long-term education and income opportunities, health, and more. 

Meanwhile, Neighborhood B conditions are favorable and well aligned for supporting the boy and his peers to grow up healthy and reach their potential. The boy in this neighborhood will not have to think much about his neighborhood but will simply enjoy the resources it offers. Eventually, having grown up in such a supportive environment may have a favorable influence on his education, health, economic prospects, and even life expectancy.

RWJF Life Expectancy Chart  in metro Cleveland. Sources: Child Opportunity Index 2.0 database, diversitydatakids.org. U.S. Small-area Life Expectancy Estimates Project (USALEEP), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As you can see in the chart above, residents in Neighborhood B, a neighborhood of very high opportunity, have a life expectancy of 81.7 years, while residents in Neighborhood A, a neighborhood of very low opportunity, can expect to live to be 72.4 years old. 

How can the Child Opportunity Index inform policy reform? 

Cleveland is just one metro area the Child Opportunity Index has mapped and measured; there are many more U.S. metros like it. The vastly different neighborhood conditions children experience, even though they might live right beside each other, aren’t happenstance. There are policies and practices in Cleveland and other metros nationwide that limit opportunities for all children to grow up healthy.

Communities are not islands. Economic forces (e.g., regional housing and labor markets) and federal, state, and local policies (e.g., land use zoning, public school funding) shape infrastructure and resources. Investment or disinvestment in communities reflects deliberate public policy and private decisions. 

The Child Opportunity Index is a tool that can help us understand where—and to what extent—inequities exist, so we can address them. 

Since it was first released in 2014, researchers, city planners, city and community leaders, and other stakeholders have used the Child Opportunity Index to identify current inequities in their metros and—most importantly—take steps to address these inequities so that children have more equitable opportunities. 

These solutions are happening across the country. 

For example, the Child Opportunity Index found that Albany, N.Y. ranked worst among the 100 largest metros in terms of the concentration of black children in very low-opportunity neighborhoods, so the City of Albany developed a capital improvement plan to increase access to ADA-compliant and cerebrally challenging parks and playgrounds in neighborhoods that had been long neglected and where predominantly black children live. Read more about Albany's efforts and its impact and hear about it on an NPR segment that ran in December 2019

The City of Chicago used the Child Opportunity Index as a key tool that informed its five-year (2016-2020) strategic plan, Healthy Chicago 2.0: Partnering to Improve Health Equity. The Department and its partners across the city now more effectively create both prevention and intervention strategies to address child health inequities across Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods. For example, some of the city’s health care institutions host job fairs in West Side neighborhoods, where unemployment rates are high and opportunity is very low.

We must invest in improving public policies that address the inequities that the Child Opportunity Index so clearly shows us. 

You can start by understanding what opportunity looks like in your own backyard at diversitydatakids.org.


About the Author

Dolores Acevedo-Garcia is professor and director of the Institute for Child, Youth and Family Policy at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University. Her research focuses on the social determinants of racial/ethnic inequities in health; the role of social policies in reducing those inequities; and the health and wellbeing of children with special needs and their families. Read her full bio