NOT LONG AGO, a team of economists at Harvard University, Brown University, and the US Census Bureau published an extraordinary study of opportunity in America.
Drawing on anonymized tax and census data, they traced the economic trajectory of nearly every American born between 1978 and 1983 — some 20.5 million people in all — from childhood to their mid-30s.
And they were able to show with remarkable and often heartbreaking precision that where we grow up — down to the specific neighborhood — can have a profound influence on our prospects for moving up the economic ladder and grabbing a piece of the American Dream.
The researchers laid it all out in a sprawling, color-coded map of nearly every census tract in the country — blue and green for neighborhoods that lifted kids to better futures and orange and red for those that left too many behind.
Some of the results were intuitive.
Here in Greater Boston, for instance, the relatively small number of poor kids who grew up amid the gracious Victorians and high-achieving schools of affluent suburbs like Wellesley earned substantially more as adults than the much larger share who grew up in the poorest stretches of the central city.
But the map held at least one genuine surprise.
Just north of Boston, on the other side of the Mystic River:an unlikely engine of upward mobility in a land of greasy spoons and auto body shops and modest two-family homes with chain-link fences.
The blue-collar cities of Chelsea, Revere, Everett, and Malden managed to put thousands of their poorest Black and Latino children on paths to upward mobility.
The gains were modest in places. But they were real. And for the researchers, they were a revelation.
“It’s one thing to say if, somehow, a lower-income family were able to move to Wellesley or Newton, they’d have good outcomes — I mean that’s fine, but that’s in general going to be very hard,” says Harvard economist Raj Chetty, the lead author of the study. “More interesting to see is that in places like Medford, Revere, Malden — you see these [strong] outcomes.”
Chetty and his coauthors on the study, “The Opportunity Atlas: Mapping the Childhood Roots of Social Mobility,” call these places “opportunity bargains” — relatively affordable neighborhoods that can change the trajectories of poor children’s lives.
And it turns out there are thousands of them scattered all over the country: humble sections of North Providence and Johnston outside Providence; big, rural stretches of North Dakota and Nebraska; and parts of Alhambra, a mid-size city on the outskirts of Los Angeles that’s been home to waves of Italian, Mexican, and Chinese immigrants.
The research is a bright spot in an otherwise bleak tale of stunted ambition.
Separate research by Chetty and several collaborators shows that, while Americans born in 1940 had a 92 percent chance of outearning their parents, those born four decades later had just a 50/50 chance.
Good-paying, blue-collar jobs have been evaporating for decades. And the economy has grown enormously top-heavy; three billionaires — Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett — now own as much wealth as the bottom half of the US population combined.
That sort of inequality has Democratic presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren talking about “big, structural change.” But big, structural change will be hard to come by.
We also need to identify ways to hack the economy as it exists — to find shortcuts to an increasingly elusive upward mobility.
The opportunity bargain is among the most intriguing we have.
SO, HOW DO these opportunity bargains work?
Why is it that some blue-collar neighborhoods give kids a leg up while other, similar places, often just a mile or two away, hold them back?
Chetty and the other academics who have studied the question aren’t entirely sure. But they have some working hypotheses.
And if you spend enough time talking to people on the ground — especially those who’ve straddled both kinds of neighborhoods — those hypotheses can feel pretty spot-on.
Jackelyn Figueroa, 30, spent the first half of her childhood in a working-class stretch of East Boston just outside Maverick Square — not the toughest neighborhood in the city, but tough enough.
It wasn’t long before she had to reckon with MS-13, a notoriously brutal gang run by Salvadoran immigrants. And because her parents were from El Salvador, she was expected to affiliate.
When she refused, it got ugly, Jacky says: “I had girls follow me, pull my hair, throw drinks at me on my way to school.” In the locker room, they’d punch her in the gut and drag their nails across her face.
And the worst, Jacky and her friends feared, was still to come.
“We’d heard stories about MS-13 raping young girls,” she says. “We were terrified.”
Jacky was constantly scanning for threats. She started skipping school and drinking. And she sidled up to members of rival gangs in search of protection. Her life, it seemed, might derail before she was even out of the sixth grade.
All of this is familiar territory for Princeton sociologist Patrick Sharkey, who studies the effects of violence on children.
His a-ha moment came about a decade ago when he started comparing cognitive assessments taken by children from the same neighborhood — some just before, and some just after, a murder or other violent event.
He expected to see differences. But the gap was jaw-dropping.
“Essentially,” he says, of the kids exposed to violence, “it looked as if they’d missed the last two years of schooling.”
Fear, Sharkey’s research shows, can simply overwhelm a child.
“When there is violence in a community, even if a kid has nothing to do with it,” he says, “it captures their attention — it leads to higher levels of stress, it leads them to be more vigilant, to focus their attention on the threat.”
Recent research by Harvard social scientist Robert Sampson and graduate student Robert Manduca, building on Chetty’s “Opportunity Atlas” data, suggests that a measure they constructed of neighborhood “harshness” — combining violence, incarceration rates, and lead exposure — may be the single strongest predictor of mobility we have.
Escaping that harshness, then, can do wonders.
It did for Jacky. Her family moved to Everett in 2002, and she could feel the difference right away.
No one was pulling her hair or punching her in the gut. And she no longer had to think about which route she’d take to soccer practice or who might menace her from the sidelines when she arrived.
It wasn’t just freedom from fear, though. There was something else. The basic fabric of her new neighborhood felt different than what she was accustomed to.
Census data from 2000 show there were more two-parent homes in her slice of Everett than her old neighborhood in East Boston. Twice as many adults were college-educated. And median household income was substantially higher — $73,972 versus $55,320.
The Opportunity Atlas researchers found strong correlations between all of these bedrock measures — income, education level, two-parent families — and upward mobility for children. And Jacky took it all in.
Her father, who worked as a cook at the now-defunct Necco candy factory, would come home with his hands dyed pink and purple. But her new friends’ parents “came home in scrubs because they were nurses’ assistants — or nurses,” she says. “The whole environment was different.”
That difference wasn’t always easy to navigate. Jacky was one of the only Latino kids in a mostly white neighborhood; she still remembers the sting of a classmate refusing to eat the pupusas her grandmother had made.
But she absorbed an invaluable cultural education. “It was like sociology,” she says. “I learned to read people from different ethnicities. I learned to understand what others like — how they speak. And that’s why I’m so good at what I do.”
Jacky has built a successful career in the head-hunting industry — earning a six-figure salary, at one point. And while that puts her on the upper edge of the mobility curve, it’s not as unusual as it might sound.
The Opportunity Atlas shows that Latinas who grew up in Jacky’s Everett neighborhood had higher household incomes as adults than about 80 percent of Latinas from elsewhere in the country and 90 percent of Latinas in the region. That’s about 40 percentage points better than Latinas from her old slice of East Boston.
Of course, neighborhoods can change.
Jacky is a little younger than the Opportunity Atlas cohort, and she probably had a slightly different experience than the kids who grew up in her East Boston and Everett neighborhoods a few years previous.
Likewise, the children growing up in those places today will probably have an experience that differs from hers.
There’s reason to wonder, then, if the Opportunity Atlas data still holds up — if neighborhoods that lifted kids in the 1980s and 1990s are still high-opportunity today. But Chetty’s research shows that neighborhoods are actually quite stable over time — more stable than we might imagine.
And something about the basic culture of the places seems to endure even amid change. The data show that if a neighborhood has done a good job historically of putting children on a path to upward mobility, that’s a far better predictor of continued success than any contemporary measure like the poverty rate.
We know where the opportunity lies. The question is, what will we do with that information?
A COUPLE OF years ago, I walked into a stubby, black building on the edge of downtown Baltimore and made my way to the elevator.
A short ride up, and I was in the bright, bustling headquarters of the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program.
It’s one of the first and most ambitious efforts in the country to turn the mechanism that transformed Jacky’s life — a move from a lower- to a higher-opportunity neighborhood — into a deliberate anti-poverty strategy.
Born of a sweeping housing desegregation lawsuit, the program serves 4,200 families from the bleakest neighborhoods of Baltimore.
Taneeka Richardson, 36, grew up in those neighborhoods, amid the dilapidated housing projects and boarded-up rowhouses. She saw her share of violence and she learned to fight in school.
But when she got pregnant at 16, she started to worry about what it would mean for her own children to come of age in the city.
A few years later, she got a Section 8 housing voucher through the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program and moved away, eventually landing in Columbia, Md., a planned community with street names plucked from the poems of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.
She rents a three-bedroom house with a two-car garage, now. The local schools supply her kids with iPads and brand new textbooks. And a few years ago her eldest, Xavier, asked her what poverty is.
“I didn’t know whether to be offended,” she says, “or to be happy.”
The kernel of the Baltimore program was a federal experiment in the 1990s called “Moving to Opportunity” that gave hundreds of families vouchers to move out of public housing projects and into low-poverty neighborhoods.
The early returns were not great.
Adults who got the vouchers didn’t earn more money, and their kids didn’t seem to be making strides in school.
But in 2015, Chetty and his colleagues published landmark research that upended those initial findings. It turned out that children who made the move at a young age — children who’d had the longest exposure to better-off places and were finally old enough to be studied — had reaped substantial long-term rewards.
They were more likely to go to college than a control group that remained behind in the projects. They were less likely to become single parents. And they earned 31 percent more in adulthood.
The findings sparked new interest in the Baltimore program and a handful of similar initiatives, and helped inspire new efforts in other parts of the country.
This summer, Massachusetts launched small pilot programs on the North Shore and in the Springfield area. And earlier this year, in a rare bout of bipartisanship, Congress approved $28 million for similar projects around the country.
As interest in the idea mounts, the Opportunity Atlas offers a detailed blueprint for how to proceed.
And by identifying opportunity bargains — relatively cheap neighborhoods with good outcomes for kids — it gives government a chance to stretch its resources.
“It can mean halving the amount you’re spending” to subsidize an apartment in a high-opportunity neighborhood, says Chetty. “You can serve twice as many families — and achieve maybe the same outcomes for their kids — as if you were trying to go to places like Newton and Weston.”
That doesn’t mean well-to-do suburbs should be left out of the mix entirely. They offer some of the best results for low-income kids.
But a program that mixes the bounty of affluent suburbs with the value of opportunity bargains could add up to one of the most promising anti-poverty interventions of our time.
Last year, Chetty and two of his colleagues, Harvard economist Nathaniel Hendren and Brown economist John Friedman, opened a research and policy institute called Opportunity Insights above a cafe in Harvard Square.
And one of their first projects was a collaboration with Seattle-area housing officials called Creating Moves to Opportunity that tested the model.
At the heart of the effort was a series of low-cost interventions — educating families about the benefits of raising children in higher-opportunity neighborhoods, helping them repair their credit to make them more attractive tenants, cultivating relationships with landlords, and offering small grants to pay for security deposits and other one-time move-in costs.
The total price tag for the counseling and grants: just $2,600 per family.
Chetty and his colleagues published a paper on the experiment this summer and the results were enormously encouraging. Participants were nearly four times as likely to move to high-opportunity areas as voucher holders who received no counseling.
And researchers estimate that kids who stay in higher-opportunity neighborhoods will make $210,000 more over the course of their lifetimes — their heftier tax bills more than paying for the counseling that got them there.
But it’s not just the benefits for individual kids that are so striking.
The experiment suggests “that [racial and economic] segregation in America is not something that’s very difficult to tackle,” Chetty says. “It’s actually something that we could change through small modifications to existing policies.”
At the moment, the federal government’s $20 billion voucher program has the perverse effect of exacerbating segregation — with most of its 2.2 million voucher holders renting in the poor, racially isolated neighborhoods they’ve known their whole lives.
Applying the Seattle approach to the whole program could change that.
BUT THE FEDERALLY funded voucher program has its limits.
Only 1 in 4 households eligible for the rental assistance actually get it. And even a more cost-efficient version — one that made use of opportunity bargains to expand the number of families served — would likely leave millions without a shot at moving to opportunity.
Figuring out how to help so many can seem a daunting task.
But when you drill down to the local level and focus on the people who could benefit most, it feels more manageable.
A Globe analysis of census data shows that, in Boston, there are about 2,200 families with children under the age of 5 who live below the poverty line and in low-mobility census tracts.
Some sizable number have vouchers already, no doubt. Others are probably uninterested in moving out of their neighborhoods.
That leaves just a few hundred families.
Getting them to Wellesley may be difficult. But getting them to Everett or Malden or Quincy, where the rents may be no higher than what they’re already paying in Dorchester or Roxbury, is more doable.
If the state or a generous philanthropy paired a small rental subsidy — say, $300 or $500 per month — with counseling, it could be enough to draw those families to the modest suburbs that could change the course of their children’s lives.
It’s the sort of idea that appeals to Chris Norris.
He’s the executive director of Metro Housing|Boston, one of nine regional “housing consumer education centers” scattered around the state — and perfectly positioned to put this sort of initiative into place.
Last year, Metro|Housing helped 9,600 renters with all sorts of queries from finding apartments to paying outstanding utility bills. Norris says he could easily imagine adding counseling that would nudge families into places like Quincy or Malden.
One benefit of such a program, he says, “is that, at least in most of those communities, the folks we work with — the folks who seek our assistance — would be welcome.”
The blue-collar towns ringing Boston are, in fact, substantially more diverse than its most affluent suburbs.
Maintaining racial and economic stability in those communities is key to any effort to move children to opportunity; no one wins if we build new concentrations of poverty. But there is every reason to believe policy makers can maintain a healthy mix.
The research on the Seattle pilot found voucher holders so scattered among various high-opportunity neighborhoods that they had a de minimis effect on the overall demographic composition of those places.
Even a full-scale expansion of the program to every voucher holder in Seattle, the study found, would have a negligible impact on the receiving communities, assuming the same migration patterns held.
Moving all these people around may still feel a bit heavy handed. But let’s be clear. It was a heavy hand that built the segregation that’s contributed so mightily to our inequality.
When black families migrated to America’s largest cities in the early 20th century, a campaign of beatings, stonings, and arson hemmed them in.
Later, systematic, government-backed discrimination in lending prevented them from breaking out of high-poverty neighborhoods and building wealth. And at mid-century, urban renewal brought a series of high-rise housing projects that only concentrated poverty further.
Waves of poor Latino and Asian immigrants were grafted onto this geography of disadvantage, limiting their own hopes for advancement. And post-industrial decay has brought enormous hardship on blue-collar white people, too — decimating many of the factory towns that helped build the American Dream.
Creating more opportunity in those towns — and in the heart of our biggest cities — has to be a priority, of course. And Chetty and his collaborators are working on that. But it’s a far more difficult task.
Moving people to opportunity won’t solve our mobility problem entirely. It’s clear, though, that it could make a substantial difference. It would be a shame if we didn’t act.David Scharfenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe