The Strong Towns Podcast

Cullum Clark: Creating Cities of Opportunity

March 8, 2021

A growing body of research—including research by Raj Chetty’s Equality of Opportunity Project (now called Opportunity Insights)—is making it plain: where a person lives has a huge influence on their ability to build prosperity, climb the economic ladder, and pursue the American Dream.

Yet why do some cities and neighborhoods do better at this than others? What lessons can be learned and then translated into local policies and practices elsewhere, so that more Americans have access to economic opportunity?

To help answer these questions, The George W. Bush Institute is producing a series of reports called the Blueprint for Opportunity. The first of those reports, “Cities and Opportunity in 21st Century America,” was released in November. It looked at 61 metropolitan areas—home to 80 million Americans—that are standouts when it comes to economic mobility. These cities are notable because they have been “unusually successful in fostering relatively high college completion, job-market access, new business creation, and housing affordability. They also tend to score high for social capital—the dense fabric of social connection and civic engagement that makes a community tick.”

The report also makes clear that “cities of opportunity” aren’t limited to the superstar coastal metros like Washington, D.C., Boston, or San Francisco. Far from it: exciting (and instructive) things are happening in mid-sized, middle-income, middle-America cities like Des Moines, Lincoln, Boise, among many others. “[Creating] a high-opportunity city doesn’t require the vast wealth of America’s top technology or finance capitals,” the report concludes. “Every city or town has unexplored avenues to promote opportunity, one neighborhood at a time.”

On this week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast, we’re excited to have as our guest the author of that report, J.H. Cullum Clark, the Director of the Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics at Southern Methodist University, and is on the faculty of SMU’s Department of Economics. Before joining the Bush Institute, he worked for 25 years in the investment industry.

In this episode, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talks with Clark about how a person’s neighborhood powerfully influences their trajectory in life, the characteristics many cities of opportunity have in common, and how drawing lessons from these places can help create more cities of opportunity. They compare and contrast cities from the Bay Area, Texas, and northern Great Plains. They discuss why cities with authentic character and local flair are doing better economically than those without. And they talk about whether it’s time to admit that centralized, top-down homeownership programs—often touted as the path to the American dream—simply aren’t working for the country’s most vulnerable populations.

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