BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – The neighborhood conditions that experts say promote opportunities for children — good schools, jobs, safe housing and access to healthy foods — are more evenly shared in Brevard County than almost any other major metro area in the country.
The bad news: the gap between poorer “low opportunity” areas and “high opportunity” areas remains high, with some Brevard neighborhoods rivaling the worst in the nation for kids, News 6 partner Florida Today reports.
That's according to the Child Opportunity Index 2.0, a study released last month by the Institute for Child, Youth and Family Policy at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.
The study provides a measure of relative "opportunity" — defined as the combined weighted measures of 29 factors known to predict health outcomes, academic success and long-term economic mobility in children — across 72,000 neighborhoods in all 50 states.
Factors include availability of early childhood education; local graduation and employment rates; school poverty; access to healthy food and green spaces like parks and playgrounds; pollution levels; and others.
A previous version of the data set — among the most comprehensive of its kind — formed the basis for community studies in Boston, San Francisco, and Pinellas County, which partnered with the University of South Florida in 2015 to unravel chronic absenteeism in area schools, and led to policy changes in health and restoration initiatives in Chicago and Albany, NY.
James Bartell, president of the Evans Center in Melbourne, said such research is an "indispensable" tool in the fight for equal access.
The center used data from a 20-page survey sent to 2,000 south Melbourne families to design its community marketplace, which opened last year after the area was declared a "food desert" by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"That's how we came up with the decision-making as to how the Evans Center could meet the needs and wants of people in the community," Bartell said. "If you don't have that, you're guessing. You're spinning your wheels."
Brevard’s ‘opportunity gap’
Neighborhoods, broken down by census tract, were assigned a qualitative "opportunity level" on a five-part scale from "very low" to "very high" and a corresponding "opportunity score" from 1 to 100, with 1 being the worst conditions for children and 100 the best.
Neighborhoods in the Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville metropolitan area, comprising most of Brevard County, earned an average score of 53, providing "moderate" opportunity relative to other major U.S. metro areas.
Researchers also found Brevard ranked ninth among the 100 largest metros for the closest scores between very low and very high opportunity neighborhoods, meaning access to favorable conditions was somewhat more evenly shared than most areas of the country.
But with an average difference of 59 points separating the lowest and highest scored areas, the "opportunity gap" for many Brevard children is wide.
While the ways in which areas can differ is broad, consider two neighborhoods. One in Palm Bay, on the north side of Malabar Road between Minton Road and Interstate 95, has an opportunity score of 32. Another, exactly 59 points higher, comprises most of Melbourne Beach.
The difference in median annual household income between the two areas was over $32,000, the study showed. Residents in the Palm Bay neighborhood were 8% more likely to live below the poverty line and 15% more likely to be unemployed.
About 6 in 10 children in the Palm Bay neighborhood were on free or reduced-price lunch, compared to 4 in 10 in Melbourne Beach, and were 27% less likely to graduate high school on time.
At the extreme ends, one neighborhood near downtown Titusville and the area surrounding the mansion-lined properties on South Tropical Trail were separated by an opportunity gap of 96 points.
Children living in the "very high" opportunity Merritt Island neighborhood are vastly more likely to excel in school, graduate from college and find living-wage jobs. They're even likely to live longer — by an average of seven years, researchers said.
The data showed opportunity also was split along racial and ethnic lines. Despite comprising about 14% of all Brevard children, about 25% living in the lowest opportunity neighborhoods were black compared to just 4% in the highest.
Black children in the county showed an overall deficit of 23 opportunity points compared to white children.
The picture was better for Hispanic children. At 14.6% of Brevard youngsters, they ranged from 14% of all children in very low opportunity areas to about 12% in very high areas, and lagged behind white children overall by just 6 points.
‘It’s a battle’
While some parts of the county, including Melbourne Beach, Indialantic and the northern and southern ends of Merritt Island, ranked alongside the best in the U.S. for children, others fell to the bottom of the scale.
Two neighborhoods in particular ranked among the worst in the nation: a section of Cocoa bordering King Street and U.S. 1, and in Melbourne between University Boulevard and Pirate Lane.
With opportunity scores of 2, the study showed, children who grow up in those areas live in roughly similar conditions to those in some of the most distressed neighborhoods of large cities like Detroit or Baltimore.
Delores McLaughlin, executive director of the Alliance for Neighborhood Restoration in Cocoa, said she was "not really" surprised by the result.
“You think, ‘Nah, we’re a small town. They’re a big urban area.’ But I also know the challenges we face on a daily basis and access is at the top of the list,” McLaughlin said.
She pointed to a lack of adequate after-school options for younger children and employment for teens. Many families in the neighborhood lacked a car, she said, limiting them to the few and often meager options withing walking distance.
"There are jobs for youth at the Kennedy Space Center during the summer, but our children can't get there," she said. "Their likelihood of being gainfully employed is limited to local fast food, unless they're willing to take public transportation for several hours outside the area."
There's been progress, she said. City initiatives and community partnerships have revitalized certain parts of the city, and groups like the Alliance help to cover gaps in after-school care and provide career training to teens and young adults.
But the need is always there.
“It’s a battle,” McLaughlin said. “People will say Cocoa is this or Cocoa is that, but we’ve come a long way.”