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A tale of two Tucsons
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Opportunity in Tucson

A tale of two Tucsons

Part two in a five-part series

Americans like to believe that all children have an equal opportunity to do well and to prosper when they grow up. However, that is not true for the nation, and it is not true for the Tucson metro area.

In Tucson, four factors other than a child's innate ability affect the opportunity available to him or her. These factors, which play a large role in determining a child's success in adulthood, are the part of town in which the child grows up, the amount of money their parents earn, their gender, and their race or ethnicity.

These differences in effect have created two Tucsons – one Tucson in which kids grow up to be financially successful, and another Tucson in which children are set up to struggle to provide for themselves and their families, for their entire lives.

En español: Cuento de dos Tucson

Since the economic disaster from the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affects the poor, these two Tucsons will become even further separated from each other unless this community works to lessen the differences.

A map of incomes earned in adulthood by kids who grow up in Tucson, developed by the opportunityatlas.org website, reveals the sharp difference between the two Tucsons. The blue and green tones show where kids grow up and earn household incomes in adulthood higher than the region's median. The red and orange tones reveal where kids in adulthood earn incomes lower than the median. The darker the blue, the higher the income. The darker the red, the lower the income. (Note these are not current incomes in the different areas; they are the adult incomes of residents who grew up in each area.)

Within Tucson, economic opportunity varies sharply

Household incomes in adulthood of kids who grow up in Tucson

The range of kids' household incomes in adulthood is great, with average incomes from the high opportunity areas four to five times higher than average incomes from the lower opportunity areas.

Equally significant, the large swatches of blue and red tones in the map lay bare an important Tucson characteristic: our community is economically segregated, and dramatically.

Most Tucsonans will not be surprised that the map shows Tucson's economic segregation has a clear dividing line: River Road.

South of River, many low- and median-income neighborhoods offer less opportunity to their kids, who tend to earn lower incomes when they grow up. Higher-income neighborhoods concentrated in the Foothills north of River and in the city's Northwest Side offer greater opportunity to their kids, who tend to be paid more in adulthood.

That effect in Tucson is similar to that in many cities, with the more affluent residents moving out of the city core into enclaves in which they and their children often have little contact with lower-income residents.

And as in other cities, economic segregation is harmful, particularly to the poor. It means that kids increasingly grow up with other kids who come from similar economic backgrounds – and may fail to understand what life is like for other less-fortunate kids.

Moreover, this residential segregation, which is largely based on income and wealth, gives rise to school segregation that is largely based on income and wealth. And this educational segregation not only affects the quality of schooling a kid may receive, but it also affects the friendships, other relationships and social resources available to the kid.

Another negative effect of economic segregation is that it leads affluent adults to lack firsthand knowledge of the poor and makes it less likely that they recognize the growing and consequential opportunity gap.

Significantly, the Harvard-based opportunityatlas.org researchers found a strong negative correlation between income segregation and upward mobility. They found upward mobility – and thus opportunity – tends to be higher in metropolitan areas in which poor families are more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods.

Analyzing incomes earned by kids who grow up in Tucson reveals that not only is Tucson segregated by income in adulthood, with the differences in opportunity that implies, but it also provides vastly different opportunities to different racial and ethnic groups.

  • Parental income tends to determine a child's income in adulthood. In general, boys and girls who grow up in low-income households make less in adulthood than boys and girls who grow up in middle-income households. And boys and girls who grow up in middle-income households make less in adulthood than boys and girls who grow up in high-income households.
  • For boys, racial and ethnic differences are large. At all three parental income levels, opportunities for boys are more available to whites and Asians than to Blacks, Native Americans and Hispanics.
  • However, for white, Hispanic and Black girls racial and ethnic differences in opportunity and income essentially do not exist, though all three groups lag far behind Asian girls.
  • At all three parental income levels, opportunities are more available to boys than to girls. The gender differences tend to be substantial, with the only exception being that Black girls earn more in adulthood than Black boys.
  • The gap between Native Americans and other boys and girls is great and reveals a major problem in Tucson.

Such findings lead to two broad conclusions. First, when parental income, race, ethnicity, gender, and the part of town in which a kid grows up all play a large part in determining the kid's opportunities for success in adulthood, then equal opportunity does not exist. It is more of a myth than a reality.

This isn't to say that some kids can't overcome disadvantaged backgrounds and become highly successful.

But when that happens, it is the exception. And public policy should not be based on those exceptions. The Tucson region's leaders in government, education and business need to focus more work on lessening the region's opportunity gaps.

Second, with so many kids in the Tucson metro area suffering from a lack of opportunity, one might expect poverty to be high. And it is.

The complete 'Tucson Opportunity' series

Part 1: Opportunity in Tucson? Not so much

Part 2: A tale of two Tucsons

Part 3: Poverty is costly, and not only for Tucson's poor

Part 4: Economic inequality limits opportunity

Part 5: Restoring opportunity: What we can do

En español

Parte 1: ¿Oportunidad en Tucson? No tanto

Parte 2: Cuento de dos Tucson

Parte 3: La pobreza es costosa y no solo para los pobres

Parte 4: La desigualdad económica limita las oportunidades

Parte 5: Restaurando oportunidad: lo que podemos hacer

Jim Kiser is a former editorial page columnist and editorial page editor for the Arizona Daily Star. He has undergraduate and graduate degrees in education from the University of Arizona and an MBA from Stanford University.

About Jim Kiser

Jim Kiser is a former editorial page editor and columnist for the Arizona Daily Star. After retiring from the Star, he worked for the Southern Arizona Leadership Council. Previously, he spent three years as vice president of Finance for the Des Moines Register and Tribune Company, and he has an MBA from Stanford University. Though her name is not in the byline by her choice, his wife Shirley, a former nonprofit and public education executive and high school English teacher, is a full partner in the effort to call attention to Tucson’s lack of opportunity for the city’s young people. 

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