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New Opportunity Atlas Estimates Social Mobility by Census Tract

Population

New Opportunity Atlas Estimates Social Mobility by Census Tract

Population

Where You Grow Up Can Affect Your Future

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Moving early in life to a neighborhood where children experience better overall outcomes can increase a child’s income by several thousands of dollars later in life.

According to the Opportunity Atlas, a new interactive tool released today, social mobility varies widely by neighborhoods just a few miles apart, even when families have similar incomes.

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Moving at birth from a below-average to an above-average mobility neighborhood within the same county would increase the lifetime earnings of a child growing up in a low-income family by approximately $200,000.

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For the first time, public access to highly localized data on social mobility is available through the Opportunity Atlas. The project is a U.S. Census Bureau collaboration with Raj Chetty and Nathan Hendren at Harvard University and John Friedman at Brown University.

A mapping interface allows users to conduct custom analyses for neighborhoods. It lets them better understand which neighborhoods offer children the best chances of climbing the income ladder later in life.

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How the Opportunity Atlas Works

The Census Bureau has long provided data that give a snapshot of neighborhood characteristics at a given time. These data have proven valuable for economic and social research for decades. However, these snapshots don’t allow the direct study of social mobility.

“We’re excited that the Census Bureau can provide the public with access to social mobility estimates for the first time through the Opportunity Atlas,” said Ron Jarmin, Deputy Director, and Performing the Non-Exclusive Functions and Duties of the Director of the Census Bureau. “The Atlas has great social significance because no one has ever had access to social mobility estimates at such a granular level.”

The Opportunity Atlas was constructed using data on 20 million Americans who are in their mid-thirties today. The data were stripped of personal information and statistically protected.

The Census Bureau has been increasing its use of administrative records in data collection.

“But now, after using modern data protection methods, the Census Bureau is able to provide all data users with access to our rich data that combines census and administrative records,” Jarmin said.

To build the Opportunity Atlas, these individuals were first mapped back to the Census tract in which they grew up. On average, 4,200 people live in a single tract.

For each of the 70,000 tracts in America, the Opportunity Atlas estimates children’s average earnings, incarceration rates, teen birth rates, and a variety of other outcomes by their parental income level, race and ethnicity, and gender. 

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Where You Grow Up May Shape Your Future

The Opportunity Atlas reveals that children who grow up just a few miles apart in families with comparable incomes often have very different life outcomes.

The map below shows one example of how these outcomes can vary drastically – in this case, by comparing the incarceration rates for black men who grew up in very low-income families in central Los Angeles.

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About 44 percent of black men who grew up in Watts were incarcerated on April 1, 2010 – the day of the 2010 Census.

By contrast, 6.2 percent of black men who grew up in families with similar incomes in central Compton, 2.3 miles south of Watts, were incarcerated on that day.

The Opportunity Atlas shows similarly large variation in a spectrum of other outcomes – from earnings to teenage birth rates – across nearby neighborhoods, not just in Los Angeles but within most cities in America. 

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What Happens When Children Move

In a research study [PDF] released with the Opportunity Atlas, we analyze the outcomes of children who move across areas. The figure below shows the predicted earnings at age 35 of children who move from the Central District of Seattle (a low-upward-mobility area) to Shoreline (a high-upward-mobility area).

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It shows that moving earlier in childhood to a neighborhood with better outcomes can increase a child’s income by several thousands of dollars later in life.

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Moving at birth from a below-average to an above-average mobility neighborhood within the same county would increase the lifetime earnings of a child growing up in a low-income family by approximately $200,000. Children who grow up in areas with better outcomes are also less likely to be incarcerated or to become a teen parent.

The lesson to be drawn from these findings is not necessarily that moving is the best solution for increasing upward mobility, but rather that the low rates of upward mobility in some areas can be changed.

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More Jobs May Not Translate Into Social Mobility

Importantly, the new measures of upward mobility in the Opportunity Atlas differ from traditional indicators of the health of a local economy.  For example, we find no association between children's outcomes and rates of job or wage growth, as shown in the figure below.

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Some cities have had exceptionally high rates of job and wage growth over the past two decades, but have very low rates of upward mobility for children who grow up there.

Factors that help children succeed often differ from those that lead to productive labor markets. For example, cities may achieve high rates of economic growth by importing talent to move there for high-paying jobs.

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Are “Better” Neighborhoods Too Costly?

On average, higher-opportunity tracts are more expensive, but there are many areas that appear to be “opportunity bargains” – places that produce good outcomes for children but don’t have very high rents.

By studying these places using the newly-released data, stakeholders may ultimately be able to replicate their successes and improve outcomes in communities throughout the United States.

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Sonya R. Porter is a principal sociologist and demographer in the Census Bureau’s Center for Economic Studies (CES). She studies income inequality and mobility, racial measurement, educational outcomes, and the experiences of ex-offenders.

Maggie R. Jones is a senior economist in CES. In addition to income inequality and mobility, she studies the economic impacts of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

 

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This story was posted in: Population


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