U.S. Census Bureau Releases the Opportunity Atlas

The U.S. Census Bureau isn’t exactly known for providing data in an attractive, easy-to-understand format. You can imagine the surprise, then, when the federal agency released its slick new Opportunity Atlas this morning.

The Atlas tracks 20 million Americans from childhood to the present (when those same people are in their mid-30s), then offers a visual depiction of how outcomes differ across geographic areas. Notably, this map is not showing you what is currently happening in a given area. It is showing you what happened to those who began their lives there so many years ago. You are essentially looking at the origin stories of 20 million Americans. The resulting picture is profound.

In a statement, Census Bureau Deputy Director Ron Jarmin said, “The Atlas has great social significance because no one has ever had access to social mobility estimates at such a granular level.” That assessment certainly seems to be true. The Census Bureau has long provided a plethora of data points on counties, cities, and states, but it has never released anything as geographically detailed as this tool.

Zooming in on a city provides a color-coded view of individual neighborhoods. The various colors indicate what happened to the children who grew up there decades ago. You filter by income levels, incarceration rates, high school and college graduation rates, and a variety of other statistics, all of which can be disaggregated by various demographic variables. It’s both fascinating and sobering to see the outcomes of so many lives reflected this way—and to see the enormous differences in life outcomes between children raised just a stone’s throw apart.

The visual representation of disparities in opportunity would be powerful enough on its own, but the Census Bureau has also adopted the uncharacteristic approach of taking a more active position and calling for change.

A formal study released alongside the tool explicitly states that “Policymakers can use these data to better target programs that aim to improve economic opportunities for disadvantaged children by pinpointing the areas within cities that currently have the weakest outcomes.” And the tutorial for the tool itself says, “ZIP code isn’t destiny, but too often it has limited children from reaching their full potential. By understanding how opportunity varies within and across communities, these new data can help identify solutions to improve outcomes for all children.”

There may be some who don’t agree with the Census Bureau’s more active stance on social mobility, but it is difficult to look at the disparities between neighborhoods and not draw the conclusion that something must be done.

While the agency stops short of calling for any specific policy solution, we at ACE know that one of the key ways to equalize opportunity is to expand access to a high-quality education. This new tool is an excellent reminder that much work remains to be done.