Inflection Point: Zip Codes and Opportunity

Image of Los Angeles WPA mapWhen you spend time assessing and talking about public policy opportunities for low income families, you notice trends in how the discussions take place.

Over the last few years, I have noticed more commentators talking about how unfair it is that the “zip code” into which a child happens to be born, is a huge predictor of his/her education, health, and future economic outcomes.

These comments are correct, and useful.  They hint at a “randomness” – if you are born on this side of I-25, or the railroad tracks, your life opportunities are abundant – born on the other side, however, not so good.  The point is that a child shouldn’t be punished because of the zip code into which they were born and raised.

But, as I’ve thought about this phrase, I’m not sure it is so helpful.  Because, the zip code you are born into isn’t at all random.

Poor families, often minorities, live in poor zip codes, partly because of urban economics and housing prices, partly due to policies that exclude them from nicer zip codes.  It is not random, but remarkably systematic, when you look at cities all over America showing exactly the same patterns.

So, I understand the reference, and the idea that kids should be innocent of their zip code affiliation.  But, the real issues are about poverty, inter-generational inequality, and public policies that reinforce family economic differences rather than resolve them.  So, we should talk more about those, not zip codes.

~Image: WPA Land use survey map for the City of Los Angeles, book 6 (Hollywood District to Boyle Heights District). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Categories: Commentary

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2 replies

  1. Did you hear that two-part story on This American Life “The Problem We All Live With” these past two weeks? It was about school integration…really great reporting.


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