The New York Times Monday highlighted a Harvard study on intergenerational mobility. Unfortunately, the results for Atlanta, Georgia, and most of the South were not encouraging. In short, only 4% of people born during 1980 and 1981 in the metro-Atlanta area, whose parents earned less than $25,000 per year, were able to climb to the top fifth of income earners. Not the kind of statistic you’d put in your brochures, and certainly not what we all want for ourselves and our children.
But the researchers identified four broad factors that appeared to affect income mobility, including the size and dispersion of the local middle class. All else being equal, upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods.
Income mobility was also higher in areas with more two-parent households, better elementary schools and high schools, and more civic engagement, including membership in religious and community groups.
Regions with larger black populations had lower upward-mobility rates. But the researchers’ analysis suggested that this was not primarily because of their race. Both white and black residents of Atlanta have low upward mobility, for instance.
The authors emphasize that their data allowed them to identify only correlation, not causation. Other economists said that future studies will be important for sorting through the patterns in this new data.
Both Conservatives and Liberals found things they liked in the study.
That intact families, good schools, and a healthy civic society are pretty important is hardly surprising to conservatives. (And especially in the case of Atlanta, effective mass transit in less concentrated cities is also important). By contrast, there was little or no correlation between mobility and the sort of stuff that left-liberals might prefer to focus on: taxes (tax credits for the poor or higher taxes for the rich), college tuition rates, or the amount of extreme wealth in a region.
Poor kids don’t exactly have a great chance in life no matter where they live, but in the South, they have almost no chance at all. If you take a look at the policy preferences of Southern governors and legislatures, that’s apparently exactly the way they like it.
It would be no surprise to readers of this blog that I agree more with AEI than Mother Jones on this one. We cannot overlook the importance of intact two parent families or ignore institutions such as Churches that for most of our history provided much needed stability to communities, rich and poor, across America. Surely the general breakdown of marriages – and the decline in the number of people bothering to get married in the first place – as well as the loss of trust in civic institutions like Churches and Schools have limited the opportunities low income people have. Folks are weary of talking about social issues, but as this study demonstrates, how we deal with issues such as marriage and religion greatly impact our society.
Another aspect of the study points to the importance of a quality education. Needless to say, Georgia has not fared well on that front, contributing mightily to the problems low income children across the State face. Rather than blaming teachers or simply demanding more money, we need to take a serious, fresh look at how we are educating Georgia’s children. What we’re doing now in many parts of the State ain’t getting the job done.
We often talk about the American Dream and what it means. Perhaps the key aspect of that Dream is the idea that in America anyone can be whatever they want. A poor person can become wealthy because the opportunity is there for them it they will reach out and grab it. You don’t need to be born rich to enjoy the opportunities America provides. To see evidence that this is not true for many is troubling to say the least.