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Heller School Child Opportunity Index used to measure gun violence risk

The Child Opportunity Index (COI), developed by researchers at Brandeis’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management, was applied to Allentown, PA this fall in order to evaluate the causes of gun violence in the area. As COVID-19 restrictions have begun to subside in the past few months, a spike in shootings and homicides have alarmed activists and leaders in the community. 

“The COI has had impacts far beyond what we initially expected,” said Dolores Acevedo-Garcia, Professor of Human Development and Social Policy at Brandeis and director of the ICYFP, in an email interview. “When opportunity is shared equitably, everyone benefits.” 

Dr. Abby Letcher, an Allentown family medicine physician, cited the town’s low score on the COI in Allentown newspaper The Morning Call. A low score on the scaled index indicates a lack of institutional support for youth in the area. Letcher discussed how socioeconomic inequities in the community engender its susceptibility to firearm-related violence. The concerned physician attributed criminality and high incarceration rates to the quality of education and other forms of support for children in Allentown. According to FBI data, the violent crime rate in Allentown is higher than 92 percent of other cities in Pennsylvania. 

The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis houses programs and research projects relating to social policy and equity efforts. The COI, developed by a team at the Heller School’s Institute for Child, Youth and Family Policy (ICYFP), includes 29 measures of child wellbeing in the areas of “health, education, and social and economic resources,” as their website explains. Acevedo-Garcia explained that the COI 1.0 was published in 2014, and the updated version, the COI 2.0, was launched in January 2020. There are currently 10 data and policy researchers working on the project at the ICYFP, some of whom were involved with this work before it was brought to the Heller School. Clemens Noelke has been the research director since 2016.

“Understanding the conditions children experience is the first step toward ensuring that all children have equitable access to the resources they need to thrive,” said Acevedo-Garcia. 

The COI 2.0 provides quantitative data on 72 thousand United States census tracts and is publicly accessible. An interactive map is also available on the website, equipped with the ability to zoom-in on census tracts for more precise information. This is presented as a blue gradient superimposed on a map of the United States, illustrating regional Child Opportunity Levels in a visual manner. There is also an option to filter these results by race and ethnicity, which highlights the disparitiesacross education, health and environment, and social and economic conditionsbetween specific demographics, especially those that have been traditionally marginalized. Acevedo-Garcia emphasized the significance of racial and ethnic composition in the areas studied.

“The COI describes neighborhood conditions that have been shaped by long standing residential segregation and disinvestment in communities where Black, Hispanic and Indigeneous people and immigrants live.” The ICYFP is especially invested in highlighting these imbalances, Acevedo-Garcia expressed.

Aside from the COI’s applications in Allentown, the index has been applied to a variety of other cities and towns. It is used by researchers as a tool to explicate the causes and impacts of a wide variety of social phenomena. In Kansas City, MO, hospitalization is five times as likely for children with asthma in low COI score neighborhoods, states the Heller School’s website. Further East, Albany was found to be the “lowest opportunity” metro area in New York for black children in 2014 using the COI. The dissemination of this research resulted in a five-year capital improvement plan for Albany’s parks, aimed at bolstering equitable access to resources.

“Quality schools, parks and playgrounds, clean air, access to healthy food, health care and safe housing—these are some of the conditions and resources children need to grow up healthy and become productive adults,” said Acevado-Garcia. “We hope that the COI can help policymakers understand the structural nature of neighborhood conditions and work with community leaders.”

ICYFP director stressed the importance of this data as a foundation for grassroots and institutional action. According to Acevado-Garcia, the research team is optimistic about the future implications of their work.

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