On Monday the NY Times covered a fascinating new study on social mobility. As you can see from the map above, there’s huge variation in the likelihood a kid from a low-income family will end up making it out of poverty depending on where they live.
Despite popular misconceptions about the “American Dream”, kids who grow up poor in the US are less likely to climb into the middle and upper classes than their counterparts in Western Europe, Canada, etc. This is a phenomenon dubbed “The Great Gatsby Curve”— countries with high levels of inequality also have low levels of mobility– i.e. if the rungs on the ladder are farther apart, it’s harder to climb the ladder. Poor kids in the US suffer from a weaker social safety net, worse health care and nutrition, more unstable housing, limited access to childcare, preschool, and college, and have to compete with rich kids who are even richer than kids in other countries (and have the resulting advantages in life).
Now let’s assume the American Dream is not just some bullshit platitude and we really do care about opportunity for all, regardless of the circumstances of one’s birth.
We might be feeling pretty hopeless right now. Fixing America’s crisis of inequality sounds overwhelming, and this useless Congress has a snowball’s chance in hell of creating any costly new social programs like universal preschool.
But what this study says to me is that it’s possible to make a significant difference at the local level. The trap of intergenerational poverty in places like Atlanta, Memphis, and Charlotte might be worse than any country in the industrialized world. But places like Salt Lake City, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Seattle have social mobility comparable to places like Norway and Denmark.
What explains the differences? Why are rags-to-riches stories in Chicago much less common than its rival metropolises of NY and LA? Why is a poor kid in San Francisco twice as likely to become successful as a poor kid in St. Louis? Can growing up poor in Seattle really give you four times better of a chance in life than in Memphis?
When you look at the map, the worst regions are clearly the Deep South and the urban industrial core of the Midwest. I associate these areas with entrenched black-white patterns of inequality and segregation. But the article notes that in cities like Atlanta, while opportunities to rise in society are scarce for poor blacks, they are just as scarce for poor whites. Maybe communities like Atlanta are more likely to see poverty in racialized terms (“Those people are not like me”), weakening their support of attempts to advance opportunities for poor folks of all races.
But let’s get into the nitty-gritty.
The authors were looking for proof that tax credits aimed at reducing child poverty like the EITC lead to better social mobility. But unfortunately they found that local tax policies had only a small correlation with class mobility.
So what can we do to at the local level to increase opportunity? Which of these factors is most easily and clearly impacted by public policy?
It’s interesting to note that the factors that most strongly correlate with lack of opportunity are things you might associate with a social conservative policy agenda: promoting traditional family structures, community ties, and religious participation. So why then is the South, the heartland of social conservatism, the huge red swath on the map with the least opportunity? I’d argue this is because social conservative policies are extremely ineffective at actually accomplishing things like reducing teen birthrates, and often counterproductive (see: birth control, sex ed).
I don’t think anywhere in America we’ve actually developed effective policies to make people have stronger family ties or be more active in their communities. (I do think we could mitigate some of the negative effects of widespread single motherhood with things like universal preschool and paid maternal leave though.)
Unfortunately the factors most directly tied to government policy (college tuition, local public spending, etc.) are at the bottom of the list. Seems like if state/local governments want to raise social mobility the best thing they can do is increase per-pupil school funding, but even that has a pretty weak correlation. Clearly the focus should be on reducing high school dropouts, but how exactly policymakers should do that is the tougher question.
I think the most interesting part of this study is the link it establishes between social mobility and segregation along racial and economic class lines. In a sprawled out, highly segregated city like Atlanta, people in poor black neighborhoods are much more isolated from decent job opportunities, good schools, social networks and other resources.
Cities and counties should be paying close attention to this. Plan dense, walkable, mixed-income neighborhoods. Provide quality public transit connecting low-income communities to job and educational opportunities. Focus economic development and infrastructure spending on the urban center, not just on the suburban outskirts. Don’t allow wealthy NIMBYs to block affordable housing in the suburbs and don’t allow developers to gentrify poor people out of revitalizing urban neighborhoods. Smart growth is not just about sustainability and hippy shit. It’s about the goddamn American Dream. It’s about everyone having a fair chance to make it. Bald eagles and apple pie and all that.
Last but not least, for the community organizers out there: Notice that “Social Capital Index” there at the top? That measures people’s civic engagement and level of involvement in community groups. Whether you’re organizing community activists to increase school funding, provide subsidized childcare or better public transit, the act of organizing people itself enhances economic opportunity as much as any policy change. Helping strengthen people’s ties to each other and to their community is one of the key foundations of social mobility. The best thing we can do is organize from the grassroots to make this American Dream a reality.