What Hillary Clinton gets right about improving U.S. social mobility

“We don’t have enough social mobility” was Hillary Clinton‘s blunt, and accurate, assessment at an hour-long Center for American Progress panel this week looking at urban development, economy, and job creation. In her remarks, the former secretary of state focused on the growing importance of cities as incubators of opportunity. (She also said “I love sessions like this,” suggesting she is every bit as wonkish as her husband.)

Mrs. Clinton offered a crisp summary of the landmark work by economist Raj Chetty and his Harvard colleagues who have found wide variation in patterns of intergenerational mobility between U.S. cities. Before this study, researchers (myself included) would focus on comparisons between nations, contrasting U.S. mobility rates with those in, say, Canada, Denmark, or the UK.

But comparing nations of such different sizes, with different cultures, immigration rates, and institutions, made reliable conclusions difficult. Thanks to Mr. Chetty’s study, we know that differences in mobility patterns within the U.S. are much greater than those between the United States and other countries. Who cares about Denmark when the gaps in life chances between people in Atlanta and Seattle (the cities Mrs. Clinton cited as examples) are so wide?

Mrs. Clinton accurately listed the factors that the Chetty study found were correlated with intergenerational mobility rates: racial and economic segregation, school quality, income inequality, social capital, and family structure. I think she oversimplified matters when she said that “race was not a factor.” It may be that whites in mostly black areas also have lower rates of upward mobility, and even that is not yet clear. But as I’ve written before, the children with narrower life chances in predominantly black areas are predominantly black. And black mobility rates differ markedly from white mobility rates.

The key point Mrs. Clinton made was on the money: Promoting mobility and opportunity is increasingly an issue for cities and states, rather the federal government. “We need to think hard about what we’re going to do,” she said, “to make sure that our cities are not just places of economic prosperity and job creation on average, but do it in a way that lifts everybody up, to deal with the overriding issues of income inequality and lack of mobility.”

Mobility is becoming a metro issue. Many of the policy levers that can help to promote greater mobility–reproductive health, early childhood education, K-12 schooling, mentoring schemes, extracurricular activities, transport links, community colleges–are also controlled at the metro level. American cities are where the American Dream lives–or dies.