Commentary: Closing The Opportunity Gap In America’s Cities

By Caitlin McCarthy and Mercedeh Mortazavi

Economic growth and redevelopment have transformed skylines and neighborhoods in many of America’s cities. Amid all of the changes, however, too many people have been left behind.

The urban neighborhoods where low-income people live — especially low-income people of color — continue to suffer from high unemployment, a dearth of affordable housing, and a lack of access to basic services and amenities. The consequences for the people in these communities can be tragic: generations of children denied the opportunity to reach their full potential. There is a ripple effect, as well, as the problems in these communities threaten the stability and the long-term economic growth of neighborhoods, cities and entire regions.

The opportunity gap is evident in cities across the country. Calvin L. Holmes, the president of the Chicago Community Loan Fund (CCLF), an organization working to stabilize communities, sums things up this way: “We really have a tale of two cities in Chicago, and I know we are not alone.”

It’s a problem with broad and diverse effects across cities and regions — and it requires a spectrum of solutions in response, from addressing pressing demands with increased capital flows, to fixing broken systems through policy and practice change. Working in neighborhoods on issues such as affordable housing and retail development is crucial, but business, residents and community leaders also need to join together across sectors on citywide strategies that tackle the root causes of poverty and disinvestment.

A Multi-Dimensional Approach

Reversing current trends will require bold, collaborative work to tackle the interlocking barriers to opportunity in cities. Harold Pettigrew, executive director of the Washington Area Community Investment Fund in Washington, D.C., observes: “When you think about what it takes to stabilize a community, you realize how important it is to take a multisector approach. You can’t offer someone a path to entrepreneurship if they don’t have housing, can’t build savings and can’t pay their bills.”

JPMorgan Chase has been investing in neighborhoods and cities around the U.S. for decades. Here is what has been learned and best practices for all cities to consider. First, “place-based” efforts in urban neighborhoods need more attention, support, and investment. Addressing challenges such as housing affordability, lack of opportunity, and high unemployment in neighborhoods requires deep collaboration among community-based organizations. The focus: aligning capital and resources toward a goal of creating resilient, thriving neighborhoods where all residents can prosper.

Second, sustainable solutions must be as multidimensional as the challenges they seek to address. This means leaders need to work together across sectors in new and innovative ways. To dramatically shift the economic trajectories of underserved communities, collaboration among business, government, nonprofits, and other community partners is essential to confront and dismantle systemic barriers to economic mobility.

Based on what has learned over years of testing solutions to inclusive growth, there needs to be a combination of strategies working together to unlock solutions. Chicago offers a case in point, as local partners are working to tackle the root causes of poverty in the city’s South and West side neighborhoods. For example, CCLF is part of a groundbreaking partnership that is focused on advancing neighborhood-based commercial development opportunities that offer residents access to quality jobs, as well as goods and services typically found in more affluent neighborhoods. At the same time, a collaborative of healthcare institutions in the city is leveraging hiring, procurement and investment power to create career and business opportunities for residents in some of the same marginalized neighborhoods.

Key Factors

This type of collaboration and coordination in cities has shown that there are a number of key factors behind successful investments. These include:

* A powerful vision for the future shaped by deep community engagement and a shared understanding of goals and priorities to ensure alignment across partners;

* Strong leadership and collaboration among a diverse set of actors with unique authority and resources to drive sustainable change; and,

* Innovative approaches that are data-driven and evidence-based and that move beyond “business as usual” to change the trajectory of communities that are currently being left behind.

With economic inequality in the United States at alarming levels, it’s time for bold approaches to expanding opportunity and making our cities better places to live and work — for everyone. Ashley Swearengin, former mayor of Fresno, Calif, and head of the Central Valley Community Foundation, puts it this way: “Collaboration is absolutely key. It maximizes resources and improves outcomes. You see communities where leaders are willing to cross boundaries — political, geographic, whatever they are. That’s a good sign of a community that’s hungry for change.”


Caitlin McCarthy is a vice president at JPMorgan Chase, leading AdvancingCities. Mercedeh Mortazavi is a community innovation program manager at JPMorgan Chase, leading PRO Neighborhoods. McCarthy and Mortazavi co-lead the AdvancingCities Challenge, open now until Jan. 15, 2020 Learn more at jpmorganchase.com/advancingcities