It’s an often used refrain about lower-income, disadvantaged students: “ZIP code should not determine a student’s educational fate.’’ In other words, just because a child lives in a high-poverty area, he or she should not receive fewer resources or an inferior education.
Yet a Star Tribune series published last week showed that ZIP code can indeed have an impact on one’s ability to rise out of poverty.
Local and national studies show that the toughest places to overcome poverty are the nation’s core cities, where the poor (who are often disproportionately people of color) and middle- to upper-income residents live in different ZIP codes — and worlds. Those who grow up and continue to live in urban poverty are more likely to stay poor throughout their lives.
Reporter Adam Belz humanized the issue with stories of several people who have been trying to rise out of poverty. The series raises these important questions: What can and should be done to expand opportunities for the poor? And how can the positive lessons of income mobility in some lower-income communities be useful in others?
As the Star Tribune Editorial Board has long argued, housing policies and development should promote mixed-income, racially desegregated communities. Long term, having more integrated neighborhoods — and fewer large concentrations of poverty — would build an economically stronger, more vibrant metropolitan area.
That’s much easier said than done. There’s often neighborhood resistance, as well as questions about land availability and costs. Should policies make it easier for low-income people to move to suburbs or rural areas where there are jobs? Or should more be done to encourage middle- and upper-income people to move into urban neighborhoods. Some of both are in order.
As the news series illustrated, stable and affordable housing matters. The metro area and parts of greater Minnesota have serious housing shortages. More must be done to increase affordable options for those who are trying to make better lives for themselves and their families. And as job opportunities grow in the suburbs (like the 1,000-plus full-time hires Amazon expects to make in Shakopee), nearby housing development should follow.
In the meantime, transportation is critical, including expanded light-rail and bus transit in the Twin Cities. And where it is more practical to drive, initiatives to assist families with vehicles can help. Such programs already exist in several dozen Minnesota counties, and they typically become self-sustaining within three years.
Promoting community building and public safety are also important in the fight to address poverty. Studies show that young people raised in rural poverty have a better chance of overcoming it, in part because crime rates are lower, civic participation is higher and they are less likely to grow up in single-parent households or have children as teenagers.
All of society benefits when there are more paths out of poverty. Creating more opportunities for all Minnesotans — regardless of ZIP code — should be a public policy priority statewide.