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Access to Opportunity, the conceptual policy framework

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

by Dr. Raphael Bostic, President & Chief Executive Officer, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Professor, University of Southern California, Price School of Public Policy and Sheryl Whitney, Partner, Whitney Jennings

In our last post, which also happened to be our first post, we introduced the Access to Opportunity project, including the first set of studies that will be undertaken as part of our larger research goals.  Though we didn’t state it, the choice of those projects was driven by a conceptual policy framework that evolved as we conducted our initial site visits in San Diego, Portland and Seattle. That framework can be most simply described as a 2×2 matrix:

Project Age
Long Established New
Project Location In the Central City
In Suburban or Exurban Communities

Project age

The first dimension is the age of the project. This is important because experience has shown that improvements in access to opportunity do not happen overnight. This was perhaps most dramatically illustrated in HUD’s 1994 Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing demonstration project. Conceived as a policy to improve employment outcomes for inner city residents isolated from increasingly suburban job markets, the initial benefits were largely health-related. It was only in recent years, more than 20 years after the program began, that we have begun to see positive employment and income benefits from program participation.[1] So we should naturally be thinking long run when looking for impacts.  This suggests that the long-lived legacy projects should be where evaluation resources should go.

Despite this recognition, our field research during the planning phase of the project made it clear that many projects undertaken in recent years have benefitted from lessons learned while these long-term projects have been in operation. They are the legacy of the early projects that began before much was known about the personal and neighborhood dynamics that govern places with inadequate access to credit. It can be argued that these newer projects are “designed for success,” meaning that positive outcomes might be seen sooner for these projects. This makes them very interesting and some might say these projects should get a lot of attention from researchers.

Project location

The other dimension of the framework focuses on the location of the project, namely whether the policy intervention is occurring in the central city or in more suburban and distant communities. For us, being in the central city is shorthand for being in a community that lacks access to at least some of the place-based assets that provide residents with opportunities to achieve and thrive.  This shorthand has an historical basis, as the problems that arise from inadequate access to opportunity have often been associated with central and inner-city neighborhoods. Many of us recall the incidents of rising crime in large urban centers that began in the 1970s and continued to climb through the 1980s and early 1990s.  There is also the reality of the large public housing projects in the central and inner city like Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis and Cabrini Green in Chicago – both of which, like so many large urban public housing projects, were torn down and replaced by lower intensity and often mixed-income housing – were epicenters for many of the social ills that destabilized communities and contributed to cycles of poverty. Indeed, unemployment rates, school achievement, crime levels, and poverty rates have all been higher in central city neighborhoods in America for decades.

Of course, we recognize that more recent work has shown that the problems of the inner cities have started to emerge in suburban and ex-urban places.[2] Thus, more and more suburban and ex-urban neighborhoods are being added to lists of “communities of need.” However, trying to incorporate this reality into simple our shorthand would have been less elegant. And those of you who know us know how we treasure elegance!!

The central city/suburban contrast is a reflection of an-ongoing debate between fair housing advocates, community development organizations and local governments. Fair housing advocates are often proponents of using resources to support breaking down barriers to the free movement of low-income families of color into suburban and ex-urban historically Caucasian, higher-income communities.  This ‘mobility’ strategy seeks to provide access to high opportunity neighborhoods utilizing such tools as vouchers, housing choice counseling, and legal remedies where necessary.  Community development practitioners, on the other hand, argue significant resources should be used to promote economic development and increased opportunity within low-income, low-opportunity neighborhoods themselves.  In this view poor, often inner city, communities should be a priority for public investment, with economic integration coming as a by-product of economic development.

As you can imagine, given resource constraints, the proponents of these different philosophies have butted heads where policy is concerned. In some cases the debate has gotten downright emotional (see the mobility vs redevelopment debate in the Twin Cities). But, fortunately, we don’t have to resolve this divide. Rather, we need to be sensitive to the truths that are spoken on both sides. We want our work to help those in the field regardless of where one comes down on the debate.

As the chart below shows, the first stable of Access to Opportunity projects plugs into the framework so that we will gain intelligence in multiple areas.

Project Age
Long Established New
Project Location In the Central City Humboldt Gardens (Portland) Achievement Academy (San Diego)
In Suburban or Exurban Communities ARCH (Seattle)  

Our goal is that the project, when fully fleshed out, will provide assistance that more completely spans this entire 2-dimensional space. We hope you will follow along with us as we discover what works and why.

Is this ambitious? Yes. But the importance of this project is so great that we are willing to aim high and push hard.  Fortunately, we have some amazing partners to help us. In the next few installments, you will get to know them and their projects. Then you will see why we are so excited about this project. Onward and upward!

Dr. Raphael Bostic, President & Chief Executive Officer, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Professor, USC Price School of Public Policy

Sheryl Whitney, Partner, Whitney Jennings


[1] Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing Demonstration Program: Final Impacts Evaluation

[2] Suburban Poverty: A Year of Lessons, Kneebone and Berube, Brookings, May 2014

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