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We Tried to Find the Most Equal Place in America. It Got Complicated

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For nearly 20 years, Dolores Acevedo-Garcia has been collecting data on the access—and lack thereof—that children in neighborhoods across the U.S. have to necessities like healthy food and a good education. She and her team at the Institute for Child, Youth and Family Policy at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., manage diversitydatakids.org, a data project designed to guide the high-level policy decisions that affect childhood and equality.

This information has helped local policymakers and institutions understand where to target programs to improve outcomes for their cities’ children. For example, last year researchers at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago incorporated the data in an analysis of car accident injury records. They found that injured children who weren’t properly secured in a car seat were more likely to live in neighborhoods that rank low on the Brandeis scale for childhood opportunity. This spurred the hospital to ramp up services that offer free car seats and car safety education to families in those areas.

In Boston, in the summer of 2017, when a community member saw evidence that young people didn’t have enough to eat, that person alerted the Vital Village Network, a group of health care, social services and education workers who create outreach programs in low-rated neighborhoods. Using the Brandeis research in conjunction with food access data, the group launched an app in late 2018 called Abundance Boston that directs residents in those areas to sources of affordable, healthy food ranging from food pantries and farmers’ markets to free spaghetti nights. Hundreds of residents have used the app, ranking and discussing their experiences, which alleviates the stigma of talking about the challenges of feeding their children.

And in Albany, N.Y., recreation commissioner Jonathan P. Jones used the data to locate areas that lack green spaces, and set out to rebuild or revitalize playgrounds and parks around the city, with a particular focus on neighborhoods that lacked these facilities. The five-year, $2 million project is well under way, with 13 playgrounds overhauled since 2015. Jones says property values are already going up around the parks, and because each site has different equipment, people are visiting areas they otherwise wouldn’t. “It forces you to go into a community,” Jones says. “It forces people to be one city.”

In January, Acevedo-Garcia and her team published the latest edition of the Child Opportunity Index, an ambitious project that takes a deep look at 47,000 neighborhoods across the 100 largest U.S. metro areas, scoring them from 1 to 100, where a higher number means more childhood opportunity based on 29 key measures.

Acevedo-Garcia’s data evaluating children’s access focuses on how the next generation is faring. But children are, of course, a proxy for the community as a whole. The life expectancy of residents in neighborhoods with very low scores on her child-opportunity scale is 75 years, for example. In very high-opportunity neighborhoods, it’s 82.

TIME worked with Acevedo-Garcia to see if her neighborhood data could point us to metropolitan areas with comparatively high levels of equal opportunity. That meant searching for areas with relatively small gaps between the highest- and lowest-ranked neighborhoods.

This information is useful because, even when places have the same opportunity level overall, actually living in those cities can be a very different experience. For example, Colorado Springs and Detroit both score an overall opportunity level of 55. But in Colorado Springs, a typical high-opportunity neighborhood scores an 87 and a typical low-opportunity one scores 24. That might seem like a huge gap. But Detroit’s high is 95 and its low is 2: a much less equal city.

The problem was, when we found areas with small gaps between neighborhoods, those cities tended to be racially homogenous. In other words, children in Provo, Utah, and Boise, Idaho, have access to comparatively equal opportunities, regardless of which neighborhoods they live in—but those cities are more than 80% white.

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Meanwhile, many of the more diverse metro areas in the U.S., especially cities with large black populations, have enormous opportunity gaps; the few diverse cities with small gaps tend to have low opportunity scores overall. “It’s hard to find a place that is equitable and racially diverse,” says Acevedo-Garcia.

In all 100 metro areas in Acevedo-Garcia’s study combined, white children live in neighborhoods with a median score of 73, compared with neighborhood scores of 72 for Asian children, 33 for Hispanic children and 24 for black children. Black and Hispanic kids live with less opportunity than their white and Asian peers almost without exception—even in Bakersfield, Calif., where white kids have the lowest opportunity in the U.S.

The disparities are especially wide in certain parts of the country. Milwaukee and its surrounding area has the widest racial disparity in the U.S., despite having a high overall opportunity score. A white child there lives in a neighborhood with a median opportunity score of 85. For a black child, the median neighborhood score is 6.

This situation is frustrating to advocates, especially when high-ranking neighborhoods don’t share resources like schools and housing with low-ranking ones that are right next door. But while the most equal place in the U.S. does not exist yet, the pursuit to get there is well under way.

“We look at the high number to say you can do well here, and many children are enjoying that success,” Acevedo-Garcia says. “Don’t tell me it’s not possible for all kids to reach that potential.”

This article is part of a special project about equality in America today. Read more about The March, TIME’s virtual reality re-creation of the 1963 March on Washington and sign up for TIME’s history newsletter for updates.

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