When my family moved to North Florida from a New York City suburb when I was around 9, I learned the cruel lesson that you can't walk around barefoot in a beach town.
The sole of my foot was impaled by a sand spur, a sharp, little burr that grows on a kind of grass that's common in coastal areas. They're also called "hitchhikers," because even when you're being careful, you'll come home with dozens of them attached to the hems of your jeans and shoelaces. Picking them off is painful. Sometimes they're just stuck for good. Little did I know that, as a kid from a family of meager means growing up in the South, something way more insidious was clinging to me.
Earlier this week, the New York Times published a piece about a recent study, the first of its kind to show that upward mobility — or lack thereof — correlates directly to geography. Researchers looked at a database of earnings records and studied how the salaries of 30-year-olds born between 1981 and 1982 compared to their parents'. Initially, they set out to determine how income tax credits and higher taxes on rich families affected outcomes for children later in life. The findings suggested the respective tax breaks and hikes have very little effect (so rest easy, rich people). On a map that illustrates how many low-income kids turn into top earners, the worst metro areas appear in shades of red. It looks like a nasty rash has spread across the South.
The article focuses heavily on metro Atlanta as "one of the metropolitan areas where it is most difficult for lower-income households to rise into the middle class and beyond." Only about 4 percent of kids whose parents earn about $16,000 a year will become top earners. Most of them — 37 percent — will make a modest move upward to earn in the lowest 31st percentile.
Conditions aren't much better in the industrial Midwest, including Chicago. The Northeast and the West Coast, particularly the Pacific Northwest, fared well, but the highest percentages of upwardly mobile thirtysomethings are from in and around Salt Lake City and North Dakota. The double-edged sword in that case was that they had to grow up in North Dakota.
Alright, so now we know that the American Dream is ailing, upward mobility is a farce, and poor kids raised in the South are basically doomed to achieve an economic fate that pretty closely mirrors their parents'. Now, it would probably behoove someone to figure out why this is the case — and what effects it's having on communities. Because generational poverty is definitely having an effect on communities. Crime's just one example.
The equality of opportunity study focuses on "correlation," not "causation." That's really all the data allowed for. But the Times' piece digs a little deeper and connects some dots by focusing on two Atlanta families living in the suburbs — once areas for the middle class and affluent which are now increasingly becoming home to people living on low incomes — struggling to provide better lives for their kids: a Stone Mountain mom with three kids who has a four-hour round-trip commute to reach her part-time job, and a Gwinnett County dad working a temp gig. The Times points to Atlanta's landscape: large swaths of low-income neighborhoods interrupted only by strip malls, with few good jobs to be found. Then there's the fact that Atlanta has the worst income inequality of any major city, is racially segregated, and has terrible public transportation linking the city and its surrounding counties. In a short piece released the day the Times article came out, former Atlantan and Washington Monthly columnist Ed Kilgore more explicitly linked Atlanta's poor economic mobility with actual mobility: the fact that low-income people can't get around.
He wrote: "Feverish opposition to the expansion of MARTA, Atlanta's public transportation system, into the suburbs was acutely associated with the desire to prevent—literally—"mobility" for those people ... And as is the case in so many contexts, many of those resisting mobility for others denied it to themselves."
I personally refuse to believe race isn't a factor, insofar as it relates to economic segregation — throughout the South and elsewhere, the poorest neighborhoods are predominately African-American. Unfortunately, there's a counterpoint to every explanation. For instance, Los Angeles is racially and economically segregated, and has worthless public transportation, but 30-year-olds who were raised there are moving up economically. Chicago has great public transit, but still has poor upward mobility. Then again, it's hugely segregated by economics and race. Violent crime is inextricably linked to poverty and segregation, so a study that shows people aren't emerging from poverty despite their best efforts (or the efforts of their parents) should be enormously troubling to people who live in high-crime areas.
Unique combinations of bad economic and social conditions are obviously causing poor upward mobility from metro area to metro area, but it's hard not to be troubled by the enormous swath of the South — from Mississippi to Georgia, down to North Florida, and up into the Carolinas — that's suffering from the same problem. Policy changes are in order, changes of political regimes are in order, or nothing will change for the next generation.
The South sticks to us in lots of ways. It would be nice if a stagnant economic future wasn't one of them.
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