The pandemic has underscored how profoundly factors like where we live, our income, the kind of job we have, and our race and ethnicity affect our health, well-being, and ability to prosper. Some families and children in the United States have had the resources to weather this storm. But far too many have struggled to meet their basic needs. A poll from late 2021 found that about half of households with children had no savings to fall back on. Significantly more Black and Latino households with children and households with incomes below $50,000 reported not having this buffer.
These are not individual failures. They are societal and systemic—stemming from the pervasive and persistent harm caused by long-standing racism, redlining, and segregation. They affect immigrant families, too, who have trouble accessing social safety net programs, even if they are U.S. citizens.
To advance equity for all, we must address child poverty, unequal access to education and healthcare, and environmental conditions for what they are—structural and systemic in nature. Change can start in your backyard.
As a researcher who has studied the effects of residential segregation, redlining, and poverty for more than 20 years, I know that data is essential to helping us understand what we can do to build a better future for our youngest generation. In January 2020, my team and I updated the Child Opportunity Index (the Index) to help researchers, city planners, community leaders, and others identify and address inequities in their metros. It measures access to factors that affect children’s health and well-being, from safe housing to green spaces to good schools, at the census tract level.
The goals: to show how neighborhood conditions impact health and well-being, and to pinpoint exactly where we need to drive more resources to ensure all children have what they need to thrive.
Over the years, my team and I have worked with organizations and experts from across the country to help them use these data to shape policy changes on all scales, from the neighborhood to the federal levels. Here’s how some have used the tool to advance equity in their backyards:
Healthcare providers have used the data to understand what their communities need. The Children's Hospital Association, a national organization representing more than 220 hospitals, integrated the Child Opportunity Index into its data and research systems. This has allowed physicians and researchers to think about how addressing low neighborhood opportunity might reduce inequities in health outcomes for children they work with.
Some hospitals are using the Index in their community health needs assessments to identify and better serve lower opportunity neighborhoods, which often bear a disproportionate burden of children’s health problems. For example, Children's National Hospital in the Washington, D.C. area has prioritized serving neighborhoods with a very low opportunity score and a child population of at least 1,000.
Cities and towns have brought in the data to understand how built and natural environments affect quality of life. In Akron, Ohio, the Child Opportunity Index was used as part of the city’s State of Canopy report, which is laying the groundwork to increase equitable access to shade trees.
Massachusetts used the Index to figure out where low-income families receiving housing assistance can move to find better opportunities for their children. Their housing mobility program used the Index to help families use their housing vouchers in higher opportunity neighborhoods. It also works with landlords to make their participation in the program a success.
Inequities run deep—they are ingrained in our systems, structures and institutions. While we need to address the root causes of our biggest societal challenges—systemic racism, for one—to advance equity, we can also work with tools like the Child Opportunity Index to design, improve and implement more equitable policies from the neighborhood to the national level.
Dolores Acevedo-Garcia is the Samuel F. and Rose B. Gingold Professor of Human Development and Social Policy, as well as the Director of the Institute for Child, Youth, and Family Policy at Brandeis University.
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