The geography of opportunity: an exploratory spatial data analysis of U.S. counties

Bev Wilson, Andrew J. Greenlee

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Rising inequality and the lingering effects of the most recent economic recession continue to engender negative perceptions of access to opportunity in the United States. While prior research has established the importance of geography in understanding opportunity in metropolitan areas, little attention has been given to the spatial distribution of opportunity outside urban areas or its temporal variation. This article builds on existing frameworks for measuring opportunity to calculate a multidimensional opportunity index for counties in the lower 48 states and the District of Columbia for the years 2000 and 2010. We use exploratory spatial data analysis techniques to map and critically examine the geography of opportunity at both time periods across regions and three distinct county typologies with an emphasis on identifying clusters of high and low opportunity. We find that opportunity decreased on average for all counties from 2000 to 2010 as did its standard deviation, consistent with arguments that opportunity in the U.S. has both declined and converged. While the opportunity index remains highest in metropolitan and urban counties, nonmetropolitan and rural areas fared well with respect to the spatial clustering of high opportunity counties. Clusters of high opportunity counties shifted from the Northeast to Midwest regions, while clusters of low opportunity counties in traditional strongholds of persistent poverty like Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, and Lower Rio Grande Valley have become more fragmented.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)625-640
Number of pages16
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 1 2016


  • ESDA
  • Opportunity
  • Regional analysis
  • Spatial inequality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development


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