Heartland Forward explores widening opportunity gaps as COVID-19 threatens to accelerate inequality

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 659 views 

Opportunity in the U.S is not distributed equally. Residents in the nation’s Heartland know that all too well.

That’s a key finding of new research published Thursday (July 30) by Bentonville think-and-do tank Heartland Forward.

Using data from Harvard University’s nonprofit Opportunity Insights, the research report, “Does Geography Determine Destiny?,” explores the decline in economic mobility across the Heartland over the past several decades and analyzes the factors that do and don’t influence economic opportunity.

The report uses county-level data that tracks 20 million Americans from childhood to adulthood, and the report finds that the Heartland region is home to some of the nation’s largest disparities in economic opportunity.

Heartland Forward uses the U.S. Census regions of East North Central, West North Central, East South Central, and West South Central to define the Heartland. These regions cover the 20 states in the middle of the country: Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin.

Ross DeVol, co-author of the report and president and CEO of Heartland Forward, said the COVID-19 pandemic is widening the opportunity gaps, especially among communities of color.

“The good news is we know what fosters opportunity: entrepreneurship, education, financial resources and access to the Internet,” DeVol said in a statement. “As we look to rebuild economies in the wake of COVID-19, there is an unprecedented chance for policymakers and community leaders to make structural changes in these areas that will foster inclusive growth, and this report serves as an essential starting point.”

The research, according to a news release finds that hyperlocal factors such as social circumstances, race and education are strong indicators of economic opportunity. The data suggests that regional factors like employment growth and migration do not significantly affect economic opportunity.

“Children’s chances of doing better than their parents have been falling for decades — and we are at a critical moment where the opportunity gap between children from low- and high-income families could widen further,” said Raj Chetty, a Harvard economics professor and director of Opportunity Insights. “This analysis puts economic opportunity under the microscope so we can understand what factors create opportunity, and what don’t, as policymakers and community leaders chart a course for the future.

“The work of organizations like Heartland Forward to champion more inclusive economic growth in the region will be critical to bridging the opportunity gap.”

A map of opportunity in the Heartland seems to suggest a clear geographical divide — less opportunity in the South and more opportunity in the upper Midwest. The research notes, however, there is significant variation between counties and even between neighborhoods.

“Arkansas offers a notable case study,” the research says “In some counties, children from low-income backgrounds earn up to $35,000 on average once they reach adulthood, while in nearby counties, children with similar backgrounds earn one-third less. In some cases, the difference is a matter of miles.

“In Northwest Arkansas, earnings in adulthood for some low-income children are double that of their peers who grew up less than 5 miles away. While Northwest Arkansas boasts comparatively better outcomes at a regional level than the rest of the state, this granular data showing stark disparities between ZIP codes is incredibly important.

“In the cities of Fayetteville and Bentonville, for example, earnings outcomes for low-income children range from less than $10,000 to over $60,000 a year — a huge gap. This variation suggests that the factors most affecting upward mobility are occurring on a hyperlocal scale.”

Other key findings from the research include:

  • Since 1940, the likelihood nationally that children will grow up to achieve a higher standard of living than their parents have fallen from 90% to 50%. The Heartland region’s decline in upward mobility mirrors the broader national trend almost precisely.
  • Children growing up in similarly low-income families across the country have stark differences in their earnings as adults, suggesting that the upward mobility experience is neither universal nor uniform.
  • Within the Heartland, there are children from low-income families who grow up to achieve the highest earnings of their peers — whereas others grow up to attain the lowest earnings. In other words, outcomes in the Heartland are widely varied and the opportunity gaps are stark.
  • Stark opportunity disparities between ZIP codes suggest that the factors most affecting upward mobility are occurring on a hyperlocal scale, such as an individual’s race, their access to education or capital, and whether they grew up in a two-parent household.
  • Broader factors like regional employment growth or migration patterns do not correlate strongly with an individual’s economic success.

A PDF of the report is available at this link.