Commentary: Why mapping ‘opportunity’ matters

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You probably have an intuitive sense that there are differences between neighborhoods — but it is often hard to discern exactly what those differences are.

It is crucial, however, to define these differences through data because 50 years of social science research shows that where we live matters greatly. It is connected to outcomes as fundamental as how long a person lives, whether a young child’s brain develops optimally, and whether children can attend fully resourced schools.

Explore the Open Communities Alliance interactive

Explore the Open Communities Alliance interactive Opportunity Map

So that’s what “opportunity mapping” is about.

By tracking data on neighborhood resources and visualizing it in maps, we can see that our intuitions translate into very real neighborhood distinctions. These maps don’t capture every nuance of a neighborhood, but the overview shows patterns in access to opportunity and how they differ between groups. It allows us to drill down to develop better policy solutions.

Recently, the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity (which pioneered opportunity mapping) worked with the Connecticut Fair Housing Center and my organization, Open Communities Alliance, to release an updated analysis of access to “opportunity” in Connecticut.

It guides our work to ensure that everyone in Connecticut grows up with the necessary tools to be successful in life.

Segregation Matters

Does Connecticut’s deep segregation really matter? Opportunity mapping allows us to answer that with a definitive “yes.”

We sorted neighborhoods into five designations, using data to calculate opportunity. And we found that 73 percent of blacks and Latinos live in areas in the two lowest designations. This is true for only 26 percent of whites and 36 percent of Asians.

What this means for an individual family is often significant, especially when the mapping is paired with other research. For example, opportunity mapping reveals deep differences in educational outcome between census tracts, as determined by test results and educational attainment. A report released recently by Connecticut Voices for Children finds that in Connecticut, schools with disproportionately large minority populations have larger class sizes and less experienced teachers compared to majority-white schools.

Education is just one example. We also know that, in Connecticut, Latinos and blacks fair worse in areas like unemployment, incarceration and health, compared to their white and Asian counterparts. Opportunity mapping helps us see that these disparities are often caused by differences in access to opportunity.

In short, certain groups are cut off from healthy, thriving, fully resourced neighborhoods. Separate really is not equal.

This is all connected to a long history of practices, like redlining and over-concentration of subsidized housing in a very few neighborhoods, private discrimination, and disinvestment. But the analysis — combined with the disparate outcomes in health, education, etc. — suggests that the status quo is problematic and very much a product of place.

We also know that blacks and Latinos, on average, earn half or less of what whites earn, greatly limiting housing choices to largely lower-opportunity communities. This data suggests we should look at solutions that not only transform struggling neighborhoods, but also create a wider geographical range of affordable housing choices for these families.

It Is All About Choices

Opportunity mapping can be sobering. We don’t always like what it says about certain neighborhoods — urban neighborhoods, in particular. But it’s important to remember that the data is intended to be used for positive community change. We can’t kid ourselves into thinking everything is fair and “OK” when we see the map. The goal is to create a Connecticut where a family of any race or ethnicity does not have to make a choice between a diverse neighborhood or a thriving community. We should be able to have both.

Guiding Our Plans for a More Equitable Future

Opportunity mapping suggests two broad solutions:

  1. Making strategic investments in places that are struggling, given the data shows such areas have deficits across a range of indicators such as school performance, individual safety, and homeownership.
  2. Reaching groups that have historically lacked opportunity, as evidenced by our maps, and facilitating linkages to thriving areas through housing, education, jobs, and transportation.

This analysis of opportunity allows us to consider the regions within our state without a racial lens, since the base data does not include racial or ethnic demographics. Rather, it provides a base map of opportunity levels upon which other information, such as race, can be mapped. This allows us to add a racial and ethnic consciousness to our understanding of regional relationships. This is a critical contribution offered by opportunity mapping as we work toward a more equitable Connecticut.

Erin Boggs, Esq. is the founding executive director of Open Communities Alliance, a civil rights organization working to build an urban-suburban interracial coalition advocating for access to opportunity. Updated Opportunity mapping and OCA’s accompanying interactive maps were born out of the CT Mirror’s 2014 Small State, Big Debate hackathon and are the result of the work of hackathon team members Jack Dougherty of Trinity College, Scott Gaul of the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, Chris Brechlin of Blueprint for Impact, and Natalia Vorotyntseva of the Mapping and Geographic Information Center at the University of Connecticut.

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