Headshot of Matt Leger

By Matthew Leger • September 10, 2018

Barriers to Opportunity

Like many Americans, my parents worked hard to provide their children with opportunities they themselves didn’t have growing up. My mother has worked as a bus driver for 20 years, and my father as a carpenter and handyman for even longer. All the while, they worked long hours and strictly budgeted what they earned. Through their hard work and dedication, my parents were able to save up enough to move our family to a safe, clean, friendly neighborhood. They wanted to show my brother and me the life we could create one day for ourselves and ultimately our own children.

I truly believe that the move my parents made had a significant impact on my brother and me; it allowed us to have greater opportunities than my parents ever dreamed of having growing up. We are now poised to have stable lives not only for ourselves but for the children we hope to have one day.

Unfortunately, not all Americans have had equal opportunity to achieve what my parents have. For many, it is still very difficult to find or create opportunity for their children. This is particularly the case for people of color, who have felt the brunt of rising housing and transportation costs.

According to a 2018 report by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, there is not a single state in the US where a full-time worker earning minimum wage can afford a modest two-bedroom apartment. As noted by the Washington Post, in Arkansas (where housing is cheapest) a full-time worker would need to earn $13.84/hour to afford rent for a two-bedroom apartment; In Hawaii (where housing is the most expensive), a full-time worker would need to earn a staggering $36.13/hour to afford the same. Minimum wage in those state currently stands at $8.50 and $10.10, respectively.

In addition, the cost of buying a house is at its least affordable since before the housing market crash of 2008. According to an article by Business Insider, median-priced homes in 75% of US counties are “unaffordable” for people earning average wages, and rising mortgage rates are the main culprit.

We have all heard of the jaw-dropping stories about destroyed houses selling for absurdly high dollar amounts in places like Silicon Valley. Perhaps the most famous was this half-burnt house in San Jose selling for $800,000 on an incredibly small plot of land. Buyers, though, were not deterred by the horrible state of the plot, nor were they scared away by the price tag. When the post went viral on social media, the realtor (who insisted that the price was not unreasonable) claimed that 10 interested buyers reached out in less than 24 hours, and the house reportedly sold one week later for $900,000.

Boston-Metro Opportunity 1

The realtor from the story above made sure to note, “[T]he buyers set the price.” And he has a point. In Santa Clara County, a house is more than a home: It’s an opportunity. A member of the Santa Clara County Realtors Association noted that the house above is in a prime location close to “high-tech offices such as Google Village… in the city’s downtown.” In addition, a quick Google search of nearby schools, medical facilities, public parks, grocery stores and restaurants near 1375 Bird Ave, San Jose, CA reveals that over a dozen of each are within walking distance or a short drive of the house. Given that the median price for a single-family home in Santa Clara County is $1.4 million, 900 grand for a tear-down starts to look like a pretty good deal indeed.

It’s expensive to be close to opportunity, but the payoff can outweigh the cost of living. Being further away from job opportunities may help save money on housing costs, but it can often mean that other opportunities are further away as well. For many of those without reliable transportation, it can even put necessities completely out of reach. 

Silicon Valley is an extreme outlier, but as noted above, its problem is not unique. Home prices across the entire US have spiked in recent years, which means we must now ask ourselves: How we can help people measure the tradeoff between cost of living and access to greater socio-economic opportunities? And beyond that: What can government then do in the long-run to more effectively create opportunity for people in low opportunity neighborhoods and make our cities more economically just?

Mapping Opportunity in Metro-Boston

Researchers at Brandeis University attempted to visualize the cost of housing and transportation at the neighborhood level in US cities with this map to see where housing and transportations costs were outweighed by the opportunities available to children. Opportunity was measured using the diversitydatakids.org-Kirwan Institute Child Opportunity Index (PDF), a “combined measure of 19 important educational, health and socioeconomic neighborhood factors for children” including poverty rate, exposure to crime and violence, as well as access to healthcare and higher quality education. They then compared the disparities in opportunity for White, Black, Hispanic and Asian children. The following maps analyze these trends for Metro-Boston neighborhoods — not far from where I grew up.

Boston-Metro Opportunity 2

This first map layers 19 “educational, health and socioeconomic” characteristics of neighborhoods that are important for childhood opportunity. Each neighborhood is ranked from very low opportunity (lighter yellow) to very high opportunity (darker red) according to the diversitydatakids.org-Kirwan Institute Child Opportunity Index.

Boston-Metro Opportunity 3

The next map layers Housing and Transportation cost burden (otherwise known as the Location Affordability Index) and ranks Boston neighborhoods on a sliding scale starting at 42.4 - 58.1% of total income (low burden) all the way to 67.9 - 99% of total income (high burden). For the most part, the closer to the heart of Boston one lives, combined housing and transportation costs become less of a burden. The further outside of Boston one lives, the combined cost of housing and transportation reaches dangerously high levels.

Boston-Metro Opportunity 4

Using the Child Opportunity Index and the Location Affordability Index, researchers at Brandeis then wanted to see where opportunity exceeded cost (green), where cost exceeded opportunity (red), and where cost and opportunity equaled out (grey). The results closer to the heart of Boston were not surprising, showing that in most neighborhoods opportunity exceeded cost. In the immediate surrounding area, most neighborhoods have their cost and opportunity equal out, but a good amount of neighborhoods (particularly those just south and further north of Boston) had their costs exceed opportunity. The outskirts of Boston had a mixture of neighborhoods where costs exceeded opportunity and where opportunity exceeded costs, but in general, the further north or south one lived from Boston, the more costs exceeded opportunity.

Boston-Metro Opportunity 5

Brandeis researchers also wanted to understand the disparities among racial groups to better understand what White, Black, Hispanic and Asian children were up against in Boston neighborhoods, so they layered demographic data over neighborhoods where housing and transportation costs exceeded opportunity (from now on referred to as Low Opportunity neighborhoods), where opportunity exceeded those costs (High Opportunity neighborhoods), and where cost and opportunity equaled out (Equal Opportunity Cost neighborhoods).

The maps show that 60% of White children in Metro-Boston lived in Equal Opportunity neighborhoods (32%) or High Opportunity neighborhoods (28%). 40% of White children lived in Low Opportunity Cost neighborhoods.

Boston-Metro Opportunity 6

The data then revealed that most Black children (51%) lived in Low Opportunity neighborhoods. Only 21% lived in High Opportunity neighborhoods and 28% lived in Equal Opportunity Cost neighborhoods.

Boston-Metro Opportunity 7

Just under half (49%) of the population of Hispanic children lives in Low Opportunity neighborhoods. Only 20% of Hispanic children live in High Opportunity neighborhoods and 31% live in Equal Opportunity Cost neighborhoods.

Boston-Metro Opportunity 8

In terms of population size, a greater percentage of Asian children (35%) live in High Opportunity neighborhoods and Equal Opportunity Cost neighborhoods (33%) than the other racial groups represented in the data. Also, a smaller percentage of Asian children live in Low Opportunity neighborhoods (33%) than the other racial groups represented in the data.

Boston-Metro Opportunity 9

Opportunity and Place

This tool can help parents maximize the value of their own “affordability versus opportunity” tradeoff. It’s also valuable for public officials because it provides a visual tool that can help them strategically target underserved areas for development and expansion of public transportation, allowing families to stay in their homes and neighborhoods without uprooting their lives to find a better place to live.

If utilized effectively, these maps provide a rare opening to help increase opportunity across neighborhoods and racial lines in areas on the lowest end of the country’s economic spectrum, bringing us that much closer to the “beautiful symphony of brotherhood” Dr. King once dreamed of.