The 21st century has been a period of unprecedented prosperity and growth, and here in Tulsa, few would dispute that our city is on the rise. In fact, our civic leaders are setting a high bar in referring to Tulsa as a world-class city. But in this time and place where things are going so well, is there really such a thing as the American dream?
The American dream refers to the idea that, with our freedom, all have an equal opportunity to achieve upward mobility through hard work, regardless of circumstances. Today, Americans nearly universally endorse this principle — with 95% agreeing that “everyone in America should have equal opportunity to get ahead.” This is a noble aspiration, but if true, it suggests that outcomes across families should not be predictable based on certain characteristics such as race and geography.
To lend insight into this question, Stanford economist Raj Chetty developed the Opportunity Atlas, mapping children’s outcomes in adulthood based on the neighborhoods in which they grew up. This Atlas explores how specific neighborhoods shape the development of human capital and where disparities in opportunity exist.
In Tulsa, looking at children who grew up in low-income households across the city, we can see significant disparities in median household income as adults based on race and neighborhood. For example, black children who grew up in poverty in several north Tulsa neighborhoods are now earning median incomes below $20,000. White children who grew up in poverty in south Tulsa, Jenks and Broken Arrow are now earning median incomes well over $50,000. Comparing low-income children who grew up in the same neighborhood shows that white children are earning 30% to 60% higher incomes than their black neighbors by adulthood.
Clearly, disparities in opportunity in Tulsa are heavily influenced by race and the neighborhood of one’s childhood upbringing. This conclusion is morally unacceptable, violates our shared principles and threatens to reduce our aspirations of becoming a world-class city to a mere delusion.
So, what can we do to ensure race and geography are not predictive of upward mobility for low-income Tulsans? Addressing this issue will certainly require targeted resources, policies and programs. But before we explore potential strategies, we should consider our approach. In doing so, I have five ideas:
• First, we should name specific disparities that exist in our city that preclude equitable opportunity for upward mobility. We know that low-income African-American students in Tulsa are eight times less likely to reach proficiency in math by eighth grade compared to their higher-income peers. We also know that, per capita, there are three jobs in midtown for every job in north Tulsa. And we know that residents in north Tulsa are dying 8.4 years earlier than residents in south Tulsa — a 12% difference in lifespan.
• Second, in naming these disparities, we should seek to broaden awareness and bring attention to the disconnect between our shared values and our reality. Leaders from every sector — civic, corporate, faith, nonprofit and philanthropic — should frequently reference these disparities. The issue of inequitable access to opportunity must pervade our conversations — from board meetings to the kitchen table — because nothing less than the promise of the American dream is at stake.
• Third, leaders in the public and private sectors should look at all proposals and decisions — regarding policies and allocation of resources — through the lens of whether they support upward mobility for low-income residents. Every resource allocated — whether taxpayer dollars, private and philanthropic capital and nonprofit agency programs — entails a trade-off. In considering such proposals, decision-makers should determine the extent to which they expand opportunity and pursue solutions based on evidence of what works.
• The fourth consideration in working toward more equitable access to economic mobility is about voice and power. Decision-makers should frequently solicit guidance and gather input from leaders and residents in the communities where resources must be targeted. We should prioritize racial and geographic diversity in positions of authority to ensure that all voices are heard, and we need to create opportunities for youth to share their perspectives.
• The final consideration is to take a strengths-based and hope-centered approach. Although we see significant disparities in our city, our neighbors who may be living in poverty, struggling in school or suffering from poor health, have many strengths and tend to be remarkably resilient. We also know that hope — which results from setting positive goals, identifying pathways to achieve those goals and cultivating willpower — is a powerful predictor of success. Any effort to improve the well-being of others must harness their strengths and aim to build their sense of hope.
Before another generation passes, we should ask ourselves what we want to be true for children growing up in this city. If we wish to move to a place where characteristics such as race and geography are not predictive of upward mobility, then we must confront existing inequities and, guided by these considerations, make the decisions today to make it so. That would give real meaning to the American dream and lead us to truly becoming a world-class city.
Michael DuPont is a program officer for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and a member of the Tulsa World Community Advisory Board. Opinion pieces by board members appear in this space most weeks.