When It Comes To Economic Opportunity, It Can Depend On Your ZIP Code•
This year’s Opportunity Index was just released. It’s an annual big-data report that ranks states on how easy it is for people to improve their lives financially. This year, Texas ranks in the bottom third — 36th overall.
That’s still an improvement from Texas’ 2011 rank of 42.
The index considers factors such as the unemployment rate, the percentage of people living in poverty, education and access to high-speed internet and fresh food.
Unemployment falls, but poverty rates go up
The state unemployment rate fell by more than half, from 8.7 percent in 2011 to 4 percent this year. Despite that, a higher percentage of people live below the poverty line and median household incomes have fallen.
“One thing to keep in mind is that the experience of poverty is a local one,” says Timothy Bray, director of the Urban Policy Institute at the University of Texas at Dallas. “States have some vehicle for improving life, but a lot of this is policy shifts and changes at the local level.”
Take the four largest counties in North Texas.
The Opportunity Index scores vary from B+ to Cs for Collin, Denton, Tarrant and Dallas counties. While 8.7 percent of Denton County lives below the poverty line, that number almost doubles in Tarrant County.
“One of the things that really is shocking for people is to realize that the complete polar opposite neighborhood might be five miles away,” Bray says. “We’ve talked to a lot of families in Dallas and [there are] kids in the southern sector who have never been to the north. Kids in the north who have never been to the south.”
On the bright side
There are a few bright spots in this year’s index. Despite funding issues for Texas public schools, the state ranks 19th in education and fourth overall for students graduating high school on time.
Bray says these types of studies can help others understand how environment can impact a person’s economic opportunity.
“I think one of the values of an index like the Opportunity Index is that it at least begins to peel that layer back and help us realize that not everybody’s neighborhood looks like mine, not everybody’s experience is like mine,” he says.