Local Economies Are Only Part of the Story of Economic Mobility

The recent Harvard-Berkeley study which was reported on in The New York Times shows that intergenerational mobility varies across cities and towns across the United States. Some areas, like San Francisco and Seattle, have high rates of mobility while others, like Atlanta and Detroit, have lower rates. What this means is that a child’s shot at the American Dream depends on where they grew up.

The economic base of a community matters for mobility because it can provide jobs and tax revenues to support services.

But two other factors stand out: education and family structure. We have long known that education is the ticket to upward mobility. We have also known that children who grow up in a two-parent family are less likely to be poor, more likely to do well in school, and less likely to get into trouble with the law or have a baby as a teenager. The study confirms the importance of both schools and families.

While parents need jobs, they also need child care and good schools. Voters and their elected officials must be willing to dedicate resources to these purposes rather than to simply keeping taxes low. So children from lower-income families tend to do better in places where there is a lot of civic engagement and a willingness to spend money on schools, transportation, child care, and the other supports needed to raise the next generation.

That said, economics is only part of the story. Young men and women without college degrees are now drifting into parenthood and into short-term relationships that don’t last. They are having children that they never intended to have, often with more than one partner. These children are not getting the kind of parenting that produces upward mobility in well-educated two parent families. As President Clinton once said, government doesn’t raise children; parents do.

Bottom line: we need both responsible parents and civic-minded communities to give the next generation a boost up the ladder.