he neighborhood where a child grows up in Syracuse determines that child’s likelihood of achieving the American dream.
Researchers say the city is so segregated by class that the area children are raised in can predict a host of future outcomes, from whether they will go to college or to prison, to whether they’ll rise into the middle class or get trapped in poverty.
These geographic boundaries that so strongly influence the future of a child born in Syracuse are also highly racialized. The sections of the city with the least amount of economic opportunity are also the ones with the largest Black populations. But, researchers say, geography plays a crucial role, so much so that the location in which a child is raised is more predictive of their future than race, the income of their parents, or any other single factor.
“Opportunity can vary greatly based on the street you live on,” said Tyler Jacobson, a predoctoral fellow at Opportunity Insights, the Harvard University team that has harvested years of IRS and census data to track social mobility.
Local and national studies completed in the past five years point to exclusionary zoning practices adopted by city and town governments as the main culprit for this divide. A lack of mixed-income neighborhoods — where single family, multi-family, and apartment complexes sit side-by-side — creates a housing system that segregates people by class in Syracuse and other post-industrial cities.
The effect of this segregation is perhaps clearest when looking at two neighborhoods, each three census tracts in size, that are separated by Syracuse University and Oakwood Cemetery. These neighborhoods, only half a mile apart, illustrate how years of exclusionary zoning, concentrated poverty, and systemic racism make the American dream unattainable for many city residents.
In 2015, adults who grew up in low-income households in the three census tracts that lie west of SU had a median income half that of adults who grew up in low-income houses in the three census tracts east of SU, according to Opportunity Insights data. The same disparity is true for incarceration. The incarceration rate for adults who grew up in low-income houses is quadruple for those who grew up west of the university compared to those who grew up east of the university.
The nearly 3,000 children included in the data were born between 1978 and 1983 and into households with annual incomes of less than $27,000 when adjusted for inflation.
The vastly different opportunities available to children born into these neighborhoods have led researchers and policy experts to a stark conclusion: social mobility in Syracuse depends largely on where one grew up, even when comparing households with the same income.
The adults who grew up in the census tract west of campus, which covers part of Syracuse’s South Side neighborhood, went on to earn a median income of $17,000. The adults who grew up in the census tract east of campus, which encompasses part of the East Side, went on to earn a median income of $37,000.
The low-opportunity zone west of campus has a population that is 78% Black, while only 9% of residents in the high-opportunity zone to the East are Black, 2019 census data shows.