The opportunity gap

The Missourian’s business team takes a look at the opportunity gaps that exist within the Columbia community.

Location, location, location.

Behind this real estate proverb lies a well-documented reality: Where you’re from matters — immensely.

When it comes to income mobility, the neighborhood in which you grow up affects your chances of moving up the economic ladder, according to a 2015 study by Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren.

For residents born in Boone County to average-income and poor families, the prognosis is grim. Children from a low-income family in Boone County will make 6 percent, or $1,470, less in annual household income than their peers at age 26, according to a New York Times series based on the study. If the same children were to grow up in Howard County, they’d be making 11 percent — or $2,850 — more than their peers at age 26. If they were to grow up in any neighboring county, in fact, they would be much more likely to achieve upward income mobility.

“(Boone County is) among the worst counties in the U.S. in helping poor children up the income ladder,” according to the New York Times. “Better than only about 17 percent of counties.”

Income mobility, when viewed across generations, is the extent to which children can end up more or less financially secure than their parents. If those children are black, it’s even more difficult to end up on top.

Disparities between whites and blacks in the high school dropout rate, rulings in the criminal justice system, access to primary health care and levels of homeownership reveal just how difficult it is in a county otherwise recognized for its low unemployment rate, availability of health care providers and vaunted place in the community of higher education.

The city of Columbia’s 2016-2019 strategic plan offers a similar narrative when describing its findings. The plan christened the reality in Columbia a “Tale of Two Cities,” noting that, despite the area’s low unemployment rate, the “pain was not equally shared.”

Although the focus of national media coverage on race in the state has been on Ferguson, the 2015 protests at MU, and the NAACP’s travel advisory in 2017, Missouri — a slave state that remained in the Union — has long harbored a collision of disparate ideals common in other border states.

A microcosm of that collision, Columbia’s inequities stem from historical practices such as redeveloping the city’s black business district known as Sharp End through eminent domain or by busing black students from Douglass High School to the predominantly white Hickman High School after Brown v. School Board of Education deemed segregation unconstitutional.

The displacement of the black community in the 1950s and 1960s set the stage for opportunity gaps that still exist today when it comes to education, criminal justice, health care and housing.

City leaders recognized these disparities, noting in the strategic plan that “this imbalance is one of the greatest challenges we face in Columbia, our nation and across the globe.”

This series offers a glimpse into what that imbalance, or opportunity gap, looks like for people on the ground, and how city leaders and community organizations are trying to help close the divide.

Supervising editor is Ron Stodghill: stodghillr@missouri.edu, 884-9688.

  • Alexis Allison is a reporter, graphics designer and master's student. She studies data journalism and likes to write deeply human stories — especially those that involve public health. Drop her a line at alexisallison@mail.missouri.edu.

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