Are We Moving On Up?

Can this even happen anymore?  Source: tvlistings.com

I’m going to go out on a limb here.  In general, Midwesterners don’t like cities.  The default vision we like to have of ourselves is as stewards of America’s pristine Heartland.  We have farms with corn and soybeans as far as the eye can see.  We have picturesque small towns anchored with historic town squares.  We don’t do majestic landscapes; we have sublimely beautiful scenery that warms our souls even during the coldest days of our brutal winters.  You ever see any of the “Pure Michigan” ads?  What about “Hoosiers”?  That’s the Midwest that most Midwesterners want you to believe in.

But alas, we have to make money to enjoy the things we love about this place.  And more than 100 years ago the Midwest went whole hog into large scale industrialization, just as mechanization was putting an end to all the farming jobs that defined us.  To be sure, we did not create our cities for our enjoyment’s sake; they were created for work.  And for the typical working stiff Midwesterner, that was fine — as long as there were divisions and separations that kept undesirable elements away from them.  What were the undesirable elements?  Smelly factories.  Loud warehouses.  Traffic.  And newcomers.

This is the fundamental social legacy of the Rust Belt.

fascinating study came out this week that examined intergenerational mobility in the United States (a less technical and more user-friendly explanation of the study can be found here).  The project’s researchers sought to determine the ability of children born into a lower income quintile to move to a higher income quintile as an adult, and explore the factors that affected the movement.  First, they found that, at least on the national level, intergenerational mobility has been stable for at least the last 40 years.  However, they found wide variability between places.  Using Commuting Zones (a geographical aggregation larger than metro areas that includes a metro area’s surrounding rural areas) as the study’s basis, the researchers found the highest levels of upward mobility on the East and West coasts, and the lowest levels in the South and Midwest.  Nine of the top 10 areas for upward mobility were on the coasts; all of the bottom 10 were in the South or Midwest.

Funny thing, though.  Most of the reactions I’ve come across focus on the stability of social mobility over time.  Matthew Yglesias says America’s a low-mobility country and has been for decades.  Jim Tankersley of the Washington Post agrees: “Children growing up in America today are just as likely — no more, no less — to climb the economic ladder as children born more than a half-century ago, a team of economists reported Thursday.”  That sentiment seems to echo throughout the mainstream media (the absolute first time I’ve ever used that phrase).

They seem to be saying that despite all our efforts, we are who we are.

But I think we have to dig a little deeper.  Running through a series of statistical analyses that I have little chance of thoroughly understanding, the researchers found this:

High mobility areas have (1) less residential segregation, (2) less income inequality, (3) better primary schools, (4) greater social capital, and (5) greater family stability.

 Hmm.  I guess the converse of that is low mobility areas have more residential segregation, more income inequality, worse schools, less social capital and worse family stability.  And then there’s this:

We begin by showing that upward income mobility is signifi cantly lower in areas with larger African-American populations. However, white individuals in areas with large African-American populations also have lower rates of upward mobility, implyingthat racial shares matter at the community (rather than individual) level. One mechanism for such a community-level e ffect of race is segregation. Areas with larger black populations tend to be more segregated by income and race, which could aff ect both white and black low-income individuals adversely. Indeed, we fi nd a strong negative correlation between standard measures of racial and income segregation and upward mobility. Moreover, we also fi nd that upward mobility is higher in cities with less sprawl, as measured by commute times to work. These findings lead us to identify segregation as the fi rst of fi ve broad factors that are strongly correlated with mobility.

Indeed, I think Emily Badger has it right when she says this:

We should be worried not that a child in Atlanta has worse prospects in 2014 than a child in Atlanta in 1970. We should be worried that this same child today has worse prospects than children growing up right now in Salt Lake City (or Sweden).

No one lives in “America” in its entirety.  If we want to say we’re OK because little has changed over the last 40-50 years, we’re deluding ourselves.  We live in the Northeast, Midwest, South or West.  We live in Boston, Indianapolis, Charlotte or Phoenix.  We live in Rittenhouse Square, Palmer Woods, Buckhead or Malibu.  And we also live in Clinton Hill, Brightmoor, Liberty City and East Oakland.  The amount of variation changes as you scale downward to micro levels.  And that’s no accident.
Mobility and inequality are not the same thing.  The ability to move up hasn’t changed for decades but the game has changed nonetheless.  The concentration of wealth at higher levels has been well documented for decades.
This is not an economic problem, this is a social problem.  Without question, metro areas without a legacy of segregation fare better than those that do.  And even those that fare well in this analysis but do have a history of segregation, like a Washington, DC or Houston, have strong enough economies to ignore segregation’s impacts on mobility.  Levels of social mobility are products of social construction, not economic.
Like I said, Midwesterners don’t like cities.  So we perfected the separation of uses, the race-neutral policies that have race-specific consequences, the use of urban renewal, highways, public housing and other strategies to, well, not have to deal with those things we don’t like.  Nationally, we’re OK.  But the devil, as they say, is in the details.

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