Integration and increasing mobility

Income mobility in American is declining. Increasingly what your parents earn predicts what you will earn. Certainly not consistent with the core American value of equal opportunity. As President Obama said in his second Inaugural Address: “We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”

The New York Times in its Upshot section has provided extensive coverage of three new research studies that provide compelling evidence that one of the most powerful levers in realizing the President’s goal that each of us ” has the same chance to succeed as anybody else” is class and race integrated neighborhoods.

In articles entitled An Atlas of Upward Mobility Shows Paths Out of Poverty and Why the New Research on Mobility Matters,  the Times provides an overview of the findings from two new Harvard reports. Both articles are worth checking out. The Times writes about the findings:

“The data shows we can do something about upward mobility,” said Mr. Chetty, a Harvard professor, who conducted the main study along with Nathaniel Hendren, also a Harvard economist. “Every extra year of childhood spent in a better neighborhood seems to matter.” … These places tend to share several traits, Mr. Hendren said. They have elementary schools with higher test scores, a higher share of two-parent families, greater levels of involvement in civic and religious groups and more residential integration of affluent, middle-class and poor families. 

The third study comes from Stanford and is summarized in an Upshot article entitled Middle-Class Black Families, in Low-Income Neighborhoods. Also worth checking out. The Times writes about its findings:

Even among white and black families with similar incomes, white families are much more likely to live in good neighborhoods — with high-quality schools, day-care options, parks, playgrounds and transportation options. The study comes to this conclusion by mining census data and uncovering a striking pattern: White (and Asian-American) middle-income families tend to live in middle-income neighborhoods. Black middle-income families tend to live in distinctly lower-income ones. Most strikingly, the typical middle-income black family lives in a neighborhood with lower incomes than the typical low-income white family.

So the good news is we have identified a powerful lever to reverse the decline in income mobility: integrated neighborhoods. The bad news is that fewer and fewer Americans––particularly African Americans––in the bottom quintile are living in those neighborhoods.

And to make matters worse in many cases public policy, rather than encouraging race and class integration, is a barrier.  The Atlantic explores this topic in a distressing article entitled How Housing Policy Is Failing America’s Poor: Section 8 was intended to help people escape poverty, but instead it’s trapping them in it.  The Atlantic also provides some hopeful news in an article entitled Where Should Poor People Live?. It explores a Massachusetts law that overcomes local opposition to integrated neighborhoods.

Finally on the good news front is the recent Supreme Court decision that upheld the 1968 Fair Housing Act as a tool to combat policies that restrict the poor and minorities from finding housing in more affluent neighborhoods. (See this New York Times editorial for details on the court decision.)

It should go without saying that it is time we develop housing policies that give those growing up in poverty a chance to live in class and race integrated neighborhoods.


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