Jan 22, 2020

America's hardest places to grow up

Nearly 10 million American kids live in low-opportunity neighborhoods, with limited access to good schools, parks and healthy food.

Why it matters: Simply being born in these pockets put these kids at a stark disadvantage. The neighborhoods in which children grow up shape many aspects of their adult lives, including how long they'll likely live, how healthy they'll be, and how much money they'll make.

The big picture: In a new report, researchers at Brandeis University used several factors — such as poverty rate, employment statistics and acres of green space — to assign opportunity scores (ranging from 1 to 100) to all 72,000 neighborhoods in the country.

  • The hardest place to grow up is Bakersfield, California, where more than half of residents under 18 live in low-opportunity neighborhoods. The best is Madison, Wisconsin.
  • Cities in the South generally have lower scores than those in the Northeast.

There are whopping disparities even within metro areas.

  • Cities with the greatest opportunity gaps include Detroit, Baltimore and Philadelphia.
  • In Detroit, there's a neighborhood with a score of 95, among the best in the country for kids, as well as one scored 2. A kid born in the better neighborhood will likely earn much more and live up to 7 years longer than another child born a few miles away.
  • Opportunity is distributed far more equally in other cities, like New York, Los Angeles and Dallas.

There's also "an extremely clear and disturbing racial divide," says Dolores Acevedo-Garcia, the lead researcher and director of Brandeis' Institute for Child, Youth and Family Policy.

  • Of the close to 10 million kids living in low opportunity neighborhoods, 4.5 million are Hispanic and 3.6 million are black.

What to watch: Some city leaders have turned Brandeis' child opportunity index into a guide to address inequities at home.

  • Albany, the city with one of the highest proportions of black children living in poverty, used the 2014 data to pinpoint which parks needed to be expanded and renovated.
  • The Boston Medical Center built an app that tells residents in its most distressed neighborhoods where to find affordable, nutritious food.

The bottom line: "We've grown very complacent and grown used to seeing our metro areas so starkly divided," says Acevedo-Garcia. "But the fact that some kids live in these neighborhoods that have much, much, much worse conditions hurts all of us, as a country."

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