Today, poor children in America have a limited shot at moving up the economic ladder into the middle or upper class. A study in 2012 by the Pew Charitable Trust shows that “[t]hose born at the top and bottom of the income ladder are likely to stay there as adults.” Further, “More than 40 percent of Americans raised in the bottom quintile of the family income ladder remain stuck there as adults, and 70 percent remain below the middle.”
In terms of economic mobility, America is losing its identity as the “land of opportunity.”
In January 2014, Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, and Emmanuel Saez, economists from Harvard and Berkeley, released a study with interesting insights regarding this issue of upward mobility. Their study explores community characteristics that foster upward mobility for lower-income children. The study measures two outcomes: absolute mobility, or the way children progress up the income ladder into adulthood, and relative mobility, or the income disparity between children who grew up rich and poor in the same community as they reach adulthood.
The researchers in the study looked at households in “commuting zones,” or what are basically metropolitan areas, in order to compare the economic mobility of children in various communities. Interestingly, they found that kids who grow up in certain metropolitan areas are far more likely to climb into the top two-fifths of American household income distribution than kids from families with the same relative income from other metropolitan areas. This led them to look into what the specific community factors are that foster opportunity. Their research reveals some very telling patterns:
1. Family Structure
The single most important factor in communities that foster economic mobility is family structure. Chetty et al. found that children raised in communities with high percentages of single mothers are significantly less likely to achieve both absolute and relative mobility. As such, “[c]hildren of married parents…have higher rates of upward mobility if they live in communities with fewer single parents.”
What makes this finding particularly significant is that this is the first major study showing that rates of single parenthood at the community level are linked to children’s economic prospects over the course of their lives. Previous research has shown that children raised by two married parents are significantly more likely to climb the income ladder, but this is the first serious study to show that lower-income kids from both single and married-parent families are more likely to flourish if they are in a community with high shares of two-parent families.
2. Racial & Economic Segregation
Second, they found that children raised in communities that are racially and economically segregated – that is, communities that cluster lots of poor kids together – are less likely to achieve economic mobility. In fact, segregation and family structure are the only two community characteristics that had a consistent correlation with upward mobility in their study.
It is helpful to think of racial and economic segregation as isolation – that is marginalization from both the mainstream economy and the norms that allow middle-income people to flourish. These norms are often contagions that go unnoticed and unmentioned in middle-to-upper-class communities. What is missing for so many children stuck in cycles of poverty is social inclusion, which overlaps with the third factor.
3. Social Capital
Social Capital often goes unmentioned in conversations about economic mobility because it is so difficult to capture in social-scientific terms. Moreover, social capital highlights how complex and connected poverty is because it cannot be separated out from other community factors. The methodology of social scientists encourages that complex problems be broken down into distinct elements to make it easier to analyze and tweak through targeted programs. But to address the problem of social capital is to enter into the complexity of poverty and see how approaches that ignore social capital actually rob disadvantaged groups of the coherence of their experience.
Here is why social capital is so important: You could have two people with exactly the same income who actually live very different lives based on the different social networks they have. For some, achieving upward mobility is a perfectly compatible, even expected, progression within their networks and lifelong relationships. Being a part of their family and maintaining strong relationships with loved ones basically means moving up the economic and social ladder. When hard times hit, they have the support structure they need to get back on their feet. For others, achieving upward mobility means separating themselves from family and loved ones, which may cause them to lack the connections and support they need to withstand an economic crisis.
The breakdown of the social bonds in American communities actually hurts the poor the most. Many people talk about inequality, but this study shows that the problem is not inequality but a lack of economic and social inclusion. Social capital is intertwined with family structure since adults in two-parent families have a much easier time devoting themselves to the kinds of activities that build social capital in a neighborhood. Social capital is also closely correlated to access to quality schools, which leads to the fourth community factor that fosters upward mobility.
4. Access to Quality Schools
Though it is certainly not a new finding, Chetty and his colleagues found that poor kids are far more likely to succeed if they have access to high quality education. Though the study does not mention the need for school choice, it is clearly a necessity by the fact that too many schools are providing a poor education to children who have no other options available to them.
GCO believes that the best and most effective way to provide access to high quality education for children from low-income households is through a variety of school choice initiatives, particularly Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) and Tuition Tax Credit Programs. Throwing more money at failing schools that lack competition and the ability to innovate is not the solution.
The study by Chetty et al. has a lot of other interesting findings worthy of consideration, but the four community characteristics that have been mentioned – two-parent families, racial and economic integration, social capital, and access to quality schools – are the ones with the strongest and most consistent correlation with upward mobility. These factors help to set those cloistered and marginalized from mainstream norms on a pathway to opportunity.
At GCO, we are committed to addressing limited social mobility in Georgia. We seek to identify barriers to opportunity and promote legislative, policy, and community solutions that allow people to achieve middle class by middle age. Our hope is that Georgia and America at large will once again become a “land of opportunity” for all people.