Sprawl May Limit Chances for Upward Mobility

One of the biggest studies of income and inter-generational mobility, the Equality of Opportunity Project, a new research initiative by economists at Harvard University and the University of California-Berkeley, has found the metropolitan area you live in can either help or hurt your chances for upward mobility. In a review of the research in The New York Times, David Leonhardt writes: “Climbing the income ladder occurs less often in the Southeast and industrial Midwest, the data shows, with the odds notably low in Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, Raleigh, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Columbus. By contrast, some of the highest rates occur in the Northeast, Great Plains and West, including in New York, Boston, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Seattle and large swaths of California and Minnesota.” In other words, denser communities may do better than sprawled-out places in turning poorer classes into wealthier ones over the years.

Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winner and op-ed columnist for The New York Times, said there have been many studies of social mobility across countries and all have found that the U.S. actually has more of an “inherited class system than other advanced nations.”

Analyzing the data from this study, one of the first major comparative reviews of metropolitan areas in the U.S., he said “in San Francisco, a child born into the bottom fifth of the income distribution has an 11 percent chance of making it into the top fifth, but in Atlanta the corresponding number is only 4 percent.”

He asks, “So what’s the matter with Atlanta?,” a city where it seems to be particularly difficult to move up. “The city may just be too spread out, so that job opportunities are literally out of reach for people stranded in the wrong neighborhoods.”

In interviews with residents of Atlanta, The Times highlights how difficult it is in both time and expense for poorer Atlantans to get to job opportunities in wealthier areas. One telling example: “Stacey Calvin spends almost as much time commuting to her job — on a bus, two trains and another bus — as she does working part-time at a day care center. She knows exactly where to board the train and which stairwells to use at the stations so that she has the best chance of getting to work on time in the morning and making it home to greet her three children after school.”

Krugman states the obvious about the situation for Calvin and so many others: “Atlanta is the Sultan of Sprawl, even more spread out than other major Sun Belt cities. This would make an effective public transportation system nearly impossible to operate even if politicians were willing to pay for it, which they aren’t. As a result, disadvantaged workers often find themselves stranded; there may be jobs available somewhere, but they literally can’t get there.”

The way out of this sprawl-trap may be smarter growth. “The apparent inverse relationship between sprawl and social mobility obviously reinforces the case for ‘smart growth’ urban strategies, which try to promote compact centers with access to public transit.”

While smart growth seems to offer benefits for income mobility, mixed-income development may also help, too. Upward mobility occurred more often when poor families were included with other income groups in mixed communities, as opposed to isolated in ghettos.

In Slate, Matthew Yglesias, who calls this research “groundbreaking,” adds that this study shows the “merits of mixed-income neighborhoods” and how they “strengthen the case against zoning out the poor with minimum lot size requirements, rules against apartment buildings, and trailer park bans.” Indeed, the current debate in smart growth circles is how to make densification more equitable and better enable that mix of income levels in gentrifying communities.

Initially, the researchers looked at millions of pieces of data about incomes, organized by geography, to determine how “different local and state tax breaks might affect inter-generational mobility.” They found that “larger tax credits for the poor and higher taxes on the affluent seemed to improve income mobility only slightly. The economists also found only modest or no correlation between mobility and the number of local colleges and their tuition rates or between mobility and the amount of extreme wealth in a region.”

Still, the data may also confirm what many other researchers have said about the value of strong social ties gained through family connections and affiliations with broader social and community groups. Inter-generational mobility was also found to be higher in areas with “two-parent households, better elementary schools and high schools, and more civic engagement, including membership in religious and community groups.”

To note, the researchers only found correlations among the data and do not present the inter-connections as causal relationships.

Explore the data and see how your city ranks.

Image credit: Atlanta traffic / CLATL

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