Cornerstones: Economic Mobility and Belonging in Oregon

Implications for Oregon

The places where children live, grow, play and learn shape the lives they lead as adults. Individual experience and opportunity are determined in part by the systems, networks, institutions and values that make up our communities. In order for our children to thrive, we must invest in thriving communities.

Most of the high-opportunity communities identified by OI are in rural areas, yet we know that the last few decades have held many challenges for these same communities: aging populations, bright young people moving out, and employment and wages affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Great Recession and the decline of the timber industry. As their economies and demographics change, rural communities must create new pathways to opportunities in order to be competitive, prosper and build communities that can thrive. Many rural communities have begun to redefine themselves and write the next chapter in their story. These communities are defining the values that are important to them and building on what residents love about living there.

Meanwhile, the neighborhoods where children have the lowest chances of making it out of poverty are all in urban neighborhoods along the I-5 corridor. People of color make up a disproportionate share of residents in these communities. Discriminatory policies, practices and institutions have dictated where and how communities of color live in Oregon. Though many formal policies have ended, their legacy and continued implicit bias and discrimination continue to shape neighborhood demographics and limit opportunities. In many of the communities identified as low-opportunity, individuals and organizations are working hard to fortify and, in some cases, rebuild the foundation so that stronger communities can emerge. These leaders should be elevated and empowered, with the understanding that change will require shifts in policies and mindsets.

The data and examples shared in this report illustrate common challenges and promising paths forward for building opportunity-rich neighborhoods and communities for Oregon’s low-income children, rural children and children of color. Solutions come in the form of creating conditions for more high-opportunity communities as well as ensuring that ZIP code plays a smaller role in opportunity.


The creation of new housing has not kept pace with Oregon’s growing population. This crisis is being felt in all corners of the state, especially in light of the thousands of homes destroyed by wildfires in September 2020. The need to rebuild and create more housing raises the questions of where to build it and what it should look like.

In 2019, Oregon lawmakers eliminated single family zoning in cities with more than 10,000 residents, similar to the change that Bend made in order to build more affordable housing. The new law lays the groundwork to create neighborhoods and communities like those in Bend and Beaverton, which are more racially and economically integrated — characteristics that are positively associated with opportunity.

Children benefit from growing up in high opportunity neighborhoods. The longer a child lives in a high-opportunity area, the better their outcomes in adulthood. In light of this information, there seem to be two options: improving the low-opportunity neighborhoods or moving families to better neighborhoods. These options do not need to be mutually exclusive, and both can be beneficial. If the focus is on moving families to higher-opportunity neighborhoods, the neighborhoods families leave behind do not improve. In fact, the original neighborhood may become even worse for those who remain. On the other hand, improving neighborhoods requires longer timelines and is more complex. But as long as it is done in a community-led manner that limits the potential negative effects of gentrification, it can ultimately improve opportunity.

“Belonging or being fully human means more than having access. Belonging entails being respected at a basic level that includes the right to both co-create and make demands upon society.”



Opportunity is shaped in part by relationships and networks of individuals. When people are connected socially and politically to those in power, their voices are more likely to be heard and their needs are more likely to be addressed. Not everyone has access to the power that drives community change and bolsters opportunity. Building opportunity-rich communities requires thinking more broadly about who belongs and who is making decisions. It also requires recognizing existing leadership that in communities that historically have not had a role in decision-making, and creating pathways for those leaders to co-create and co-own community structures.

There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to social capital. But across Oregon, nonprofits, community members, government and philanthropy are working together to strengthen social ties. In Wallowa County, social connectedness is a way of life that wraps around children in the community, ensuring they are seen and supported. In Beaverton, the city, nonprofits and community members are building bridges that are connecting diverse groups of residents.


While it is too soon to know the longer-term economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, we do know that a strong recovery will probably require investing in community infrastructure. To attract businesses, communities need high-speed internet access, reliable transportation for goods and people, and a skilled workforce, among other things. Investing in rural broadband access as well as commercial and public transportation could help rural communities build on existing strengths, such as local culture and natural assets, that already appeal to businesses.

To strengthen the local workforce, rural and urban communities need to provide pathways to high-wage jobs. Many communities are building career and technical education programs — like those at Joseph Charter School and Lakeview’s Innovation and Learning Center — to train residents for high-wage, high-demand careers. These programs need continued support and engagement from government, philanthropy and local businesses in order to succeed.

Networks also matter when it comes to finding living-wage jobs. Career and technical education, as well as mentoring and other youth workforce development programs, can help youth expand their networks and understand the possibilities available to them. At the same time, small-business capital and support for entrepreneurs and professionals of color can help people already in the job market to expand and strengthen their networks.


The quality of local schools plays a large role in shaping opportunity and economic mobility. In 2019, Oregon lawmakers made a historic move to invest an additional $1 billion annually in students, educators and schools through the Student Success Act. The new law provides funding for education supports that research has shown to be effective. In addition to significantly expanding the state’s investment in early childhood education, the act provides funding that school districts must use to meet students’ mental and behavioral health needs and to increase achievement and reduce academic disparities for students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities, and students navigating poverty, homelessness and foster care.

Districts are given wide latitude to create plans for how their portion of the funds will be used. Options include increasing instructional time, reducing class size, supporting kindergarten transition programs and broadening curricular options. The state has also created culturally specific student success plans and an Early Childhood Equity Fund to address the needs of students of color.

As schools and communities move forward on planning and implementation, they have the opportunity to invest resources in ways that improve school quality and outcomes for low-income students and students of color. Communities can pay attention to and share what is working for these students. For example, culturally relevant and specific programs such as Juntos are helping Latino students in Bend succeed. Improving school quality will not happen overnight, and expanded resources will need to be sustained for years to come if we hope to improve opportunity.

Attaining a postsecondary credential or degree can boost income prospects, and there are various ways to improve access and affordability. Scholarships that provide multiple years of flexible funding, like those in Lake County, help students stay in school and graduate. In addition, more scholarships and other forms of financial aid are needed for students completing certificates or starting in community college and transferring to four-year institutions. Expanding distance learning opportunities may also support rural students and working students who cannot leave home to complete coursework.


Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to building a promising future for Oregon’s children. Variations between neighborhoods and communities illuminated by OI’s data demonstrate that each place has a unique mix of assets and opportunities. Even within the same community, an approach that works for low-income white children may not work for low-income children of color. Solutions need to be tailored to place and people.

The Opportunity Atlas is a rich resource for communities to begin — or continue — exploring what opportunity looks like in their corner of our state. By critically examining the communities we live in, we can start to build a brighter future for Oregon’s children. It falls on all of us to create a new narrative, push for systems change, support new approaches to encouraging economic mobility, and ultimately create communities where all children can thrive.

Next: Methodology »