Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Class Mobility: Why Moving Up is Just a Dream for Many American Children

by Nomad

Recent studies about class mobility in America reveal some interesting findings on upward mobility- the core principle of the American Dream. 
They suggest that one key factor between making that dream a reality or not could just be where you happen to live.

A recent study, commissioned by  the Equality of Opportunity Project and funded by the National Science Foundation, made some interesting correlations. Researchers found that areas with greater mobility-where people can rise out of the class they were born into- tended to have five characteristics: 
  • less segregation
  • less income inequality
  • better schools
  • greater social capital,
  • more stable families

Researchers are quick to point out that the study was more about finding patterns. The study was not an attempt to decide what is a cause and what is an effect.  In any event, the findings themselves provide valuable information about the state of cyclical poverty in the US.

Where You Call Home
One factor is simply where you live. For example, the cards are stacked against the poor in the Southeast and the industrial Midwest. Basically, if you are poor there, you're stuck. 
On the other hand, if you are born poor in in the Northeast, Great Plains and West, including in New York, Boston, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Seattle and large swaths of California and Minnesota, you may be able to climb out of the inherited hole. At least, there's a chance.

Overall, in metropolitan areas, where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods upward mobility tended to be higher. Less success can be found when poor populations are concentrated in one area. Of course, critics to the study could ask whether these poor neighborhoods are just areas where the poor can actually afford to live.

There is generally speaking less segregation in areas of upward mobility. Regions with larger black populations, the study notes, had lower upward-mobility rates. However, researchers are quick to point out that race alone may not be primary factor. Atlanta has low upward mobility for both whites and black residents.

Schools and Family
In addition, another common link was the stability of the family unit and educational resources.
Income mobility was also higher in areas with more two-parent households, better elementary schools and high schools, and more civic engagement, including membership in religious and community groups.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative research think tank, has spend a lot of time and money attempting to promote marriage as a solution to poverty. (Except in the case of same-sex marriage, of course.) 
However, as we have pointed out in another post, this is much more likely to be a confusion between cause and effect. More people marry when they are in a position to marry, meaning, when they are are economically stable.
And economic problems were found to be also one of the main causes for divorce. So a two-parent household may simply be an indicator (and not a cause) of a robust economy where upward mobility is possible.

Giving Up on the American Dream
Nationwide polls have shown that the subject- whether living standards will rise- is a worry for Americans. According to a Pew Research Survey, the proportion of Americans who identify themselves as middle class has dropped sharply in recent years. Today nearly as many Americans identify themselves as lower or lower-middle class (40%) as say they are in the middle class (44%). 

Despite mildly positive news that the economy is slowly but surely recovering, there isn't much hope in the hearts of Americans that things will get better

And they are not just being pessimistic. Another Equality for Opportunity study revealed that, compared to other rich countries like Canada, Australia, France, Germany and Japan, in the US, a smaller percentage of people are able to develop past the poverty they were born into. There is, the study noted, a growing public perception that inter-generational income mobility – a child’s chance of moving up in the income distribution relative to her parents – is withering away in the United States.
Whatever the reasons, affluent children often remain so: one of every three 30-year-olds who grew up in the top 1 percent of the income distribution was already making at least $100,000 in family income, according to the new study. Among adults who grew up in the bottom half of the income distribution, only one out of 25 had family income of at least $100,000 by age 30.
However, the study also found that, given the right environment, this cycle can be broken.
Especially intriguing is the fact that children who moved at a young age from a low-mobility area to a high-mobility area did almost as well as those who spent their entire childhoods in a higher-mobility area. But children who moved as teenagers did less well.
Rather than inherent cultural values of local residents, this suggests that the location of a child at a formative age may play a significant factor in the varying rates of class mobility. 

The Growing Numbers
For the Southern states, that's just more bad news. A study by the Southern Education Foundation points out that. for the first time in at least four decades, the majority of students in public schools throughout the American South (and West) are low-income. 
The map on the left show how the overall decline since 2001. 

As an article in the Washington Post last year explained:
Children from those low-income families dominated classrooms in 13 states in the South and the four Western states with the largest populations in 2011, researchers found. A decade earlier, just four states reported poor children as a majority of the student population in their public schools.
From around 2011, nearly half of America's 50 million public-school students qualifed for free or reduced-price lunches. (This was the prime indicator of class in the study.) 
In some states like Mississippi, that figure soared to an astounding 71 percent. (Nevertheless, Mississippi has no state meal mandate for public schools under the federally-funded National School Lunch and Breakfast Program.)
In a large swath of the country, classrooms are filling with children who begin kindergarten already behind their more privileged peers, who lack the support at home to succeed and who are more than likely to drop out of school or never attend college.
What these studies tell us is that, whatever the reasons, in some states, the poor are much likely to remain that way for at least another generation.