Opportunity Blocked

A little more than 200,000 minors live in Duval County today. Of those, roughly 50,000 grapple with penury, an affliction that many of them will never be able to escape. Fewer than 5,000 of these low-income children will reach the top quintuple of wealth. Only a few dozen—if that—could conceivably ascend to the very zenith of society’s economic ladder.

“If you are born in the lowest 20 percent [of income distribution], you only have a 5 percent chance of making it to the highest 20 percent,” said Elizabeth Lufrano, community impact manager with United Way of Northeast Florida. “When we talk about a 5 percent chance, that is just saying some crazy, cataclysmic thing happened and you managed to get out.”

The recently published U.S. Census Bureau Opportunity Atlas bears this out in a dramatic way. The interactive data tool, developed in part by Harvard and Brown, tracks youth economic mobility, or the probability that children born in a particular income bracket will climb to those above. Turns out Duval County is strikingly rigid, a fact that comes as no surprise to local nonprofits and community grassroots organizations.

“What we found in Jacksonville is that upward mobility is very low,” said Alex Rudnick, who leads Generation Jacksonville, a local offshoot of a global organization dedicated to launching youth into careers.

Upward mobility is complex, the result of an intricate algorithm of seemingly mundane determinants such a ZIP code. As the Opportunity Atlas indicates, the neighborhood where a child grows up is a potent indicator for success later in life. Take, for instance, Jacksonville’s Urban Core. An average of 30 percent of the area’s poor youth will remain in the vicinity as adults, according to the Atlas, earning less than $20,000 a year. Only five miles or so to the south, in Avondale, some 15 percent of low-income children will stay, bringing home $27,000 annually.

The reasons for and repercussions of such differences often overlap, perpetuating local racial and socioeconomic rifts. Certain neighborhoods lack access to quality education, affordable housing and reliable transportation, making upward mobility unattainable.

“Economic mobility touches everything, whether it is education, health outcomes, the whole gamut,” said Lufrano.



In many ways, education lies at the heart of the matter. Across the county, the high-school graduation rate of low-income students stands at 73 percent, the Opportunity Atlas shows, but slumps by 9 points for poor African-American male students. And it’s not only the diploma that matters; literacy is just as important.

“You have a large population of individuals, even if graduation rates have increased, who never learned how to read,” said George Maxey, executive director of New Town Success Zone, a coalition of residents, businesses and nonprofits dedicated to uplifting the community.

Maxey, a former school principal, said that over the last 20 years in Duval County Public Schools, an average of 33 percent of African-American students have passed a benchmark third-grade reading test. To correct the trend among current school-age children, the New Town Success Zone is teaching parents, too.

“We sit down with males, training them to read bedtime stories to their daughters and sons, making literacy be part of the household,” said Maxey.



Schools are hardly to blame for such failures. In separate interviews, both Maxey and Lufrano stated that the root of the problem stretches to an earlier period in a child’s life. Quality childcare facilitates social skills, school performance and, ultimately, economic advancement. But in Jacksonville, its cost is prohibitive, even for many middle-class families.

For parents with two children, childcare saps 32 percent of their average income, nearly four times more than tuition at Florida State College at Jacksonville. To be affordable, it needs to account for only a tenth of household earnings, according to a report by CLIMB, a youth-focused initiative by Generation. Fewer than a quarter of Jacksonville’s families—only those making above $83,000 a year—can pay the current price tag of childcare.

As a result, many parents rely on relatives to look after their children, or they forego employment and stay home themselves. Such arrangements, however, disadvantage youths who step into school with less basic knowledge than peers who receive professional childcare.

“You have quite a few African-American youths who don’t know words, don’t know their letters, because we don’t have quality childcare in our community,” said Maxey. “So it’s not school-to-prison pipeline, it’s reading-to-prison pipeline.”



Save for some prosperous blocks, job growth in the Urban Core and Westside during the 2004-2013 decade stalled in the low single digits. In some places, it even turned negative. Long-entrenched blight in these neighborhoods has continued to grow on the feebleness of economic opportunities, made even worse by intermittent public transportation.

Abandoned or rundown buildings account for the majority of homes in New Town, said Maxey, adding that the New Town Success Zone is working to flip this. And yet, even if most homes are hidden behind boarded windows, with no water and electricity, New Town residents still find it hard to afford housing here. Only 40 percent of them can pay for their homes, a considerable portion of which are rentals. That number is consistent with statistics in neighboring Springfield and Arlington. Across the city, those earning $30,000 a year spend more than 60 percent of that income on rent, according to the CLIMB report.



Such predicaments sharpen the focus on not only on the needs of the children but their families as well. “Whatever you do for a child, you have to make sure you are doing it for the parents, too,” said Maxey. “Whatever you are doing for the parents, you have to make sure you are doing it for the child. You cannot do one without the other.”

This assertion shapes the two-generational model that New Town Success Zone and a slate of partners, including United Way and Generation, have developed and implemented. At first, the Success Zone served only kids; today, it helps both youth and adults begin careers, receive healthy nutrition and enhance their properties, among other services.

For Lufrano, of United Way of Northeast Florida, the advancement of economic mobility doesn’t end there. Employers, too, need to become more aware of the precarious conditions of some of their employees. A poor, working parent might decline a promotion, she said, for reasons that well-off managers or colleagues couldn’t even fathom.

“If they are making more money on a monthly basis,” she said, “they may lose their [low-income] benefits and so they can actually be in a worse financial position and their kids could be—all of a sudden—not able to get food every day.”



For disadvantaged children and parents alike, the economic ladder is more slippery than it seems. Scaling it necessitates the concerted and coordinated efforts of those affected, of public agencies and of private institutions. Thea Little knows this well. The 23-year-old Duval resident credits her accomplishments—IT certification through Generation, two small businesses, a separate job and a civil-engineering degree in progress—to the many role models who have urged her forward.

“A lot of young people [today] do not have mentors,” Little said. “I had people who wanted me to do well and kept me going, people that were willing to help. This is definitely what got me where I am today.”

Throughout the years, Little has lived in Arlington, New Town, Springfield and Southside—all locales with significant impediments to youth economic mobility. Regardless of economic background, African-American women who grew up in these areas secure jobs at a rate of 75 percent, according to the Opportunity Atlas. In some pockets, such as the tract along San Jose Boulevard, south of University Boulevard, their employment dips to 50 percent. Just east of it, however, it rises to nearly 90 percent.

Little might have miraculously broken what seems like a curse that some neighborhoods carry. Perhaps it was grit or perhaps mentors and nonprofits helped her leap over the obstacles that burden thousands of children upon their birth. But maybe if her family had resided on a different street, or even in an adjacent city, her victories would have been greater … or smaller. Today, real work is finally underway to give everyone an equal chance to succeed.