What Can Cities Do To Promote Greater Economic Opportunity?

By Charles Rutheiser

Charles Rutheiser is a Senior Associate in Center for Community and Economic Opportunity at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, Maryland. He manages the Center’s grant portfolios relating to Anchor Institutions and Knowledge Development, and is part of the team that is developing the Casety Foundation’s next generation investment strategy in community change.

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This blog post is a response to the Meeting of the Minds & Living Cities group blogging event which asks, “How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?”

My friends like to joke that I have never met a simple question to which I couldn’t provide a complicated answer. This post may well increase the number of people who share their opinion. But in my defense, this isn’t a simple question. Its complexity lies not only in the multitude of possible answers, many of which may be upon closer examination more expressions of faith than matters of fact, but in the assumptions we often make about “cities” and “opportunity.”

Focusing on the definitions of basic terms may strike some as a tedious and needless exercise in semantics at the expense of getting down to the more serious business of particular policies, programs and practices. However, I would suggest that for all of their frequent invocation, cities and, especially, opportunity, are terms with multiple and fuzzy meanings. Figuring out what they refer in this context is a necessary pre-condition for any serious business.

Often when we talk about cities “doing” something, we are referring to only one kind of system of which they are composed—the official one of public agencies and formal bodies overseen by elected officials and administrative bureaucrats.

But cities as active agents are far more than merely the sum of their public systems. Indeed, one of the things that make them such complicated and confounding places to live in, let alone manage, is that they are comprised of a multitude of individuals, institutions and networks, each driven by their own goals, interests and logics. One of the most important challenges lies in figuring out how to reconcile, mediate, balance and align all of these self-interested actors, some of whom possess far greater power and influence than the others, in pursuit of a broader or public benefit.

The simple point I wish to make here is that the responsibility for thinking about and acting in the interest of the public good rests not only with the public sector, but with other powerful institutions—among them private corporations, universities, hospitals and other anchor institutions—in partnership with communities and other less formally-empowered actors. Building and sustaining truly inclusive partnerships in the face of competing interests and rapidly changing circumstances are some of the most complicated tasks cities must face. However, the importance and difficulty of such activities are usually not fully appreciated.

Still, the conceptual fuzziness of the city is nothing compared to the concept of opportunity.

The notion of opportunity is closely connected with the very idea of America; the existence of opportunity to realize a better life for oneself and one’s children is the cornerstone of the American Dream. However, the shortchanging or outright denial of such opportunity for people of color, especially those living below the poverty line, has been a bedrock feature of the American reality since day one. Despite the constant invocation of its universality, opportunities for a better life are highly unevenly distributed in the contemporary United States, especially in its cities.  American cities are not uniform environments, but patchworks of opportunity oases and opportunity deserts, with increasingly little ground in between.

Given the sacred importance of opportunity in American culture, one would think that is straightforward, if not easy, to define and measure.  This is not the case. Some people view opportunity as largely a matter of individual striving, grit, and determination; for others it is the product of deep and highly unequal social and economic structures and systems. Both perspectives contain elements of truth, but neither is sufficient unto itself.

Opportunity is not a thing. It is, rather, a set of dynamic circumstances.  Opportunity is a chance, a choice, an alternative, a possibility, a potential, it may even be a very good probability or strong likelihood, but it is anything but a certainty. Opportunity is a necessary, but not sufficient condition; its realization depends on other things happening or the existence of enabling conditions, or sometimes just the ability to be in the right place at the right time.  Perhaps the most important, but underappreciated aspect of opportunity is simply the opportunity to be lucky.

Some kinds of opportunity, such as those provided by formal education, are easier to discern and grasp than others. In the contemporary United States, there is abundant evidence that shows that an individual’s ability to access and graduate from college is a major determinant of their lifetime earnings and her or his ability to enjoy a standard of living above the poverty line.  Higher education can thus be regarded as a structural or manifest opportunity; the value of it is very measurable in terms of job requirements, employment rates, and income.  Yet, despite the clarity and increasing importance of the value of higher education, the pathways to it are not always present, especially for young people of color living in low-income communities.

More than five decades after the dawn of the modern civil rights movement, the doors to the opportunity for higher education in the United States may be well marked, but they exist on different floors of a building where the elevators don’t usually stop and where the staircases have either whole flights missing or are blocked by debris. Perhaps more than anything else, poverty can be defined, and largely explained, by a lack of chances, choices, alternatives, connections and possibilities, as well as the presence of glass ceilings and other hard, cold, invisible, but very real barriers.

But other dimensions of opportunity are far less apparent, if just as important, as higher education. Many doors to success in a wide range of careers and professions are unmarked and are totally inaccessible without someone to show the way and the ropes, to tell you how things really work, to teach you what attitudes and behaviors are necessary to succeed in these kinds of environments, as well as to make introductions and connections. The old adage “it’s not only what you know, but whom you know” is not a glib, empty statement, but is an accurate description of the environs of all kinds and “collars” of work.

But opportunity is not merely a matter of what you know and who you know, but what you can imagine and choose do with it.  The most latent dimension of opportunity, and most challenging to appreciate, measure and master, isn’t about finding the unmarked doors, but discovering doors that no one else knew were there or making doorways (and stairways, whole rooms, entire floors, new buildings) where they could or should be, but don’t yet exist, not only for yourself, but for others.

Taking advantage of opportunity requires that one can see it, if only in the mind’s eye. This sense of sight, and the disciplined self-awareness and entrepreneurial sensibility that helps create it, must be cultivated and encouraged; it is a learned rather than instinctual behavior. However, this skill is not a subject in the formal educational curriculum and there is no standardized test that measures it. Nevertheless, we expect people to possess it. Requiring something that it is neither acknowledged nor provided makes opportunity even more invisible than it already is.

The question we need to be asking ourselves is: what can cities–understood here in the widest and most inclusive sense described above–do to promote this broader sense of opportunity for all of their citizens?

¿Qué pueden hacer las ciudades para promover mayor oportunidad económica?

Este blog post es una respuesta al evento de “blogging en grupo” de “Meeting of the Minds & Living Cities”, que pregunta, “¿Cómo pueden conectar mejor sus residentes a oportunidad económica las ciudades?”

A mis amigos les gusta bromear que nunca he encontrado una pregunta sencilla a la que no he podido proveer una respuesta complicada. Puede que este post aumente el número de personas que comparta su opinión. Pero en defensa de mi, esta no es una pregunta sencilla. Su complejidad se basa no solo en la multitud der respuestas posibles, muchas de las cuales, al examinarlas de cerca, pueden ser más bien unas expresiones de fe que hechos, sino en lo que suponemos sobre las “ciudades” y las “oportunidades”.

Puede que centrarse en las definiciones de los términos básicos les parezca a algunos un ejercicio tedioso e innecesario de semánticos a costa del asunto más importante de políticas, programas, y prácticas específicas. Sin embargo, yo sugeriría que a pesar de su invocación frecuente, ciudades y, especialmente oportunidad, son términos con muchos significados confusos. Enterarse de lo que significan en este contexto es un prerrequisito de cualquier negocio.

A menudo cuando hablamos de las ciudades que están “haciendo” algo, nos referimos al único tipo de sistema del que se componen – el oficial de agencias públicas y órganos formales supervisados de oficiales elegidos y burócratas administrativas.

Pero ciudades como agentes activas son mucho más que meramente la suma de sus sistemas públicas. De hecho, una de las cosas que hace que sean lugares tan complicados y confundidos para vivir, mucho menos manejar, es que constan de una multitud de individuos, instituciones, y redes, cada uno motivado por sus propias metas, intereses, y lógicas. Uno de los desafíos más importantes es llegar a entender cómo reconciliar, mediar, balancear, y nivelar todos estos actores auto-interesados, algunos de los cuales poseyendo mucho más poder e influencia que los demás, buscando un beneficio público o más amplio.

Lo que me gustaría enfatizar aquí es que la responsabilidad de pensar en y actuar en el interés del público existe no solo en el sector público, sino otras instituciones influyentes—entre ellas, corporaciones privadas, universidades, hospitales, y otras instituciones fundamentales—que hacen equipo con comunidades y actores con menos poder formal. Construir y sostener colaboraciones verdaderamente inclusivas ante intereses conflictivos y circunstancias que cambian rápidamente son unas de las tareas más complicadas que las ciudades deben enfrentar. Sin embargo, la importancia y dificultad de tales actividades no se suelen apreciar.

Aun así, la confusión conceptual de esta ciudad no es nada comparada con el concepto de oportunidad.

La noción de oportunidad está relacionada estrechamente con la misma idea de América; la existencia de oportunidad para realizar una vida mejor para uno mismo y para sus hijos es la fundación del Sueño Americano. Sin embargo, la sisa o negación total de esa oportunidad para personas de color, especialmente ellos que viven por debajo del umbral de pobreza, ha sido un aspecto fundamental de la realidad americana desde el principio. A pesar de la invocación constante de su universalidad, las oportunidades para una vida mejor se distribuyen desigualmente en los Estados Unidos actualmente, especialmente en sus ciudades. Las ciudades estadounidenses no son ambientes uniformes, sino áreas de remansos y desiertos de oportunidades con cada vez menor zona gris.

Dado la importancia sagrada de la oportunidad en la cultura Americana, uno pensaría que fuera directo, si no, fácil, definir y medirlo. Eso no es el caso. Para algunos, la oportunidad es una cuestión de esfuerzo, coraje, y determinación; para otros, es el resultado de sistemas y estructuras económicas altamente desiguales. Ambos perspectivos constan de elementos verdaderos, pero ninguno es suficiente solo.

La oportunidad no es una cosa, sino una colección de circunstancias dinámicas. La oportunidad es un chance, una elección, una alternativa, una posibilidad, una potencia, o puede que sea una posibilidad muy probable, pero no es una certeza. La oportunidad es necesaria, pero no es una condición suficiente; su realización depende del suceso de otras cosas, o la existencia de condiciones que la permitan, o a veces, solo la capacidad de estar en el sitio correcto a la hora correcta. Quizás el aspecto de la oportunidad más importante pero menos apreciado es simplemente la oportunidad de tener suerte.

Algunos tipos de oportunidad, como los que proveen la educación formal, son más fáciles de entender que otros. Actualmente en los Estados Unidos, hay una abundancia de evidencia que muestra que la capacidad de acceder y graduarse de una universidad es un determinante mayor en sus ingresos de por vida y su capacidad de disfrutar de un estándar de vivir por arriba del umbral de pobreza. Por lo tanto, se puede considerar la educación superior como una oportunidad estructural o manifiesta; se puede medir su valor en términos de los requisitos de trabajos, las tarifas del empleo, y el ingreso. Sin embargo, a pesar de la claridad y la importancia cada vez mayor del valor de la educación superior, los senderos hacia ella no siempre están presentes, especialmente para personas jóvenes de color que vivan en comunidades de bajos recursos.

Más que cinco décadas después del principio del movimiento moderno de derechos civiles, puede que las puertas a la oportunidad de educación superior en los Estados Unidos se marquen bien, pero existen en plantas distintas de un edificio donde los ascensores no suelen parar y donde a las escaleras les faltan partes enteras o están bloqueados por restos. Quizás más que todo, la pobreza se puede definir y explicar por una falta de chances, elecciones, alternativas, conexiones, y posibilidades, además de la presencia de cielos cristales y otras fronteras duras, frías, e invisibles, bien que son muy reales.

Pero otras dimensiones de oportunidad son mucho menos aparentes, aunque son tan importantes como la educación superior. Muchas puertas al éxito en una variedad amplia de carreras y profesiones no se marcan y son totalmente inaccesibles sin alguien para enseñarte el camino y los pormenores, para decirte como las cosas realmente funcionan, para enseñarte cuales actitudes y comportamientos se requieren para tener éxito en esos tipos de ambientes, además de presentarte y conectarte a otros. El antiguo adagio “no es solo lo que sabes, sino quien conoces” no es una declaración vacía ni insincero, sino una descripción acertado de entornos de muchos tipos y clases de trabajos.

Pero oportunidad no es meramente una cuestión de lo que sabes y quien conoces, sino lo que puedas imaginar y lo que elijas hacer con ello. La dimensión de oportunidad más latente y más difícil de apreciar, medir, y dominar, no se trata de encontrar puertas sin marcas, sino de descubrir puertas de que nadie más sabía, o de hacer puertas (y escaleras, habitaciones enteras, plantas enteras, edificios nuevos) donde deberían estar, pero todavía no existen, no solo para ti mismo, sino para otros.

Aprovecharse de oportunidad requiere que uno pueda verla, aun si solo en la imaginación. Este sentido de vista, y la conciencia de uno mismo disciplinada y la sensibilidad empresarial que ayuda a crearlo, deben ser cultivados y fomentados; es un comportamiento aprendido más que instintivo. Sin embargo, esta capacidad no es un curso en el currículo de la educación formal y no hay un examen estandarizado que lo mide. Aun así, suponemos que la gente la posee. Requerir algo ni proveído ni reconocido hace que la oportunidad sea aun más invisible que ya es.

La pregunta que nos tenemos que hacer es: ¿Qué pueden hacer las ciudades—entendidas aquí en el contexto más amplio e inclusivo como descrito anteriormente—para promover este sentido más amplio de oportunidad para los demás ciudadanos?


This blog post, which is adapted from the introduction of Charle’s forthcoming book, Quiet Strengths and Bold Results: The First Half-Century of Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, reflects his own perspective and not necessarily that of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.


Leave your comment below, or reply to others.


  1. Liz

    Access to safe, reliable and efficient public transportation is a huge component to connecting people to opportunity — literally and conceptually.

  2. Carla Mays

    We need to focus on building local living economies with communities that are being most effected by urban gentrification. Foundations need to support microlending, microenterprise development, small business creation and ecosystem supports. Urban communities in cities like Oakland, Los Angeles and New York could greatly benefit from improved and targeted in these areas funding. These communities have amazing entrepreneurs, transportation and can use help in creating affordable housing the is inclusive to local neighborhood revitalization with current residence vs. just “hipsters” and new comers. Looking to work on these types of programs with foundations and economic development corporations.


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