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Our view: Opportunity study bodes well for region

Herald editorial board

For years, communities have been divided by stereotypical lines that crisscross geographic areas, often more imaginary than real. For example, the "wrong side of the tracks."

Now, a study conducted by researchers at Harvard and Brown universities shows how specific neighborhood lines can impact a child's prospect of upward mobility. The atlas uses numbers from the census, tax returns and other data on roughly 20 million people born between 1978 and 1983. It considers their parents' income, along with the child's income in subsequent years.

The exceptionally good news is that Greater Grand Forks, Minnesota and North Dakota appear to present some of the best opportunities in the United States, according to the research.

To study the effects of neighborhoods and geographic regions on a child's future, a team of researchers — led by Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist — developed the Opportunity Atlas, an interactive tool that lets users see for themselves which neighborhoods in the United States offered the best and worst opportunities for children.

Once those questions can be answered, the researchers conclude, policymakers can better design economic policies that target disadvantaged families.

Among the data-points studied were household income, incarceration rates, teenage birth rates and employment rates.

In a report by National Public Radio, Chetty said "for kids turning 30 today ... only 50 percent of them go on to earn more than their parents did." Chetty said it's very different than it was back for children born in the 1940s or '50s; much higher percentages of those children went on to earn more than their parents did.

These days, he said, "it's a coin flip as to whether you are now going to achieve the American dream."

The chart created from the research helps pinpoint where children have beaten the odds as well as those places where children struggle to do so. According to the NPR report, Chetty determined that if a person moves out of a prospectively "bad" neighborhood and into a better one, it increases the lifetime earnings of that person by an average of $200,000.

Much of the chart is shown in hues of gray, yellow and red, colors that show average or below-average outcomes for low-income children in those areas.

For the sake of this study, blue generally is the color of success and where the best outcomes can be achieved. So it matters that Grand Forks and East Grand Forks both have rich, blue hues in key categories, including the household income in 2014-15 — $43,000 in Grand Forks, $41,000 in East Grand Forks — for people born between 1978 and 1983 to low-income parents. The employment rate, graduation rate and other indicators for people in that demographic also show very good results.

The Dakotas and Minnesota—and specifically, our region here—are a sea of blue among tans, beiges and reds.

Notably, the study asks: Where should a family seeking to improve their children's outcomes live?

According to this chart, and assuming that the same factors that helped young people born in 1980 still are helping young people today, the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota would be a terrific place to start.