Opportunity for all?

A recent and widely publicized study revealed the importance of neighborhood and location in the outcomes of poor children.  The study was reported in the New York Times, and discussed in local media over the last week. You can see, yourself, the information for Winnebago County here.  The data shows that a child, born into a household in the bottom 25% of income, has a worse outcome in some places, and better in others. That child, born in Winnebago County, will earn about 9% less income at age 26 than a similar child, also born into poverty, nationwide. Meanwhile, a child in that same income category, born in Ogle County, would earn about 9% more than the national average.

The researchers studied those factors which seem, in some places, to keep children in poverty while in other places they help children escape.  And the list is no surprise: the level of violence, the quality of schools, the presence of jobs, and the level of racial and economic segregation.  The best thing that a parent can do for their child, if they live in a high-poverty, high-crime neighborhood?  Move.

Of course, every striving parent who is able make the leap to another neighborhood leaves behind an old neighborhood now missing someone who might work to make it better. Every winner of a housing voucher leaves behind others not so lucky.  We used to have “school choice” in this town – but it was actually a lottery, because there were never enough spots. So those left behind were the children of parents who did not know about, or did not win, their chance.  And how is it that folks will be able to move when they have no or little income?

The premise of this country is that, unlike the European aristocratic structure we rebelled against, this was a “land of opportunity.”  That “any child” could make it here. That story has always been fiction. For indentured servants, enslaved Africans, dislocated Native Americans, and migrant laborers, opportunity was fleeting at best. A few exceptions were lifted up – “look, she made it!” – but for most, the deck is stacked and the game is rigged. And when one structure of oppression is removed, another takes its place.

This problem is not isolated to Rockford. It is nationwide. Urban neighborhoods have been neglected, terrorized, ignored, and blamed for their own oppression.  We can and should work hard to change outcomes in our town. Neighborhood improvement plans created by folks who live there need support. Schools in high-poverty neighborhoods need the very best educators and resources. Community policing, to reduce crime and build trust, all at once, is essential. But this is a national – indeed, international, problem.

As we go about our local efforts, I hope we ask deeper questions. Why do we permit a global economic system that enriches multi-billionaires at the expense of almost everyone else – the poor and the middle-class both? If we believe that every child is a child of God, why don’t we have a society that reflects that?

And, more concretely, we should ask some hard questions about our state. In the study, Illinois has some of the largest gaps between the outcomes for poor children by geography. That’s no surprise, given the high levels of racial segregation in Chicago, Rockford, East St. Louis, and other communities. And it is no surprise because of the deeply unequal way we fund public services. Our reliance on property taxes means that people in Rockford pay a much higher rate of tax, but have lower per-pupil funding, than people in the Chicago suburbs. Instead of making a hard problem better, we make it worse. We need to push for reforms to the school funding formula — but to keep us from fighting over crumbs, we need to work for a fair tax in our state, and major shifts in economic policy nationwide.

The story of “opportunity for all” is a fiction. But it doesn’t have to be. It can, instead, be a vision. One that will motivate us to make profound changes in policy and, more importantly, in our hearts.  We know in our souls that our system, as is, denies the humanity and the divinity of our most vulnerable children.  Under no religious or decent ethical view is such a world acceptable. We can do better.  Let’s.