Location as your child's income predictor

Location as your child's income predictor

July 28th, 2013 in Opinion Times

When President Barack Obama speaks here Tuesday, it's almost a sure bet he'll talk about jobs and the U.S. economy and our children's future.

In fact he began that conversation in Galesburg, Ill., last week when he talked about the disconnect between Congress and his vision - our vision - for the country and our children.

House Republicans gutted a farm bill and eliminated food stamps that America's most vulnerable children depend on; and Congress continues to push what he calls the "the meat cleaver" sequester that is suppressing an economy that had been on the mend for more than three years.

A new study unveiled last week in the New York Times points up the dire straits we will continue to place our children in if we can't break at least some of that disconnect.

Despite this country's many accomplishments and its creation of 7.2 million new jobs in the past 40 months - some of them right here in Chattanooga - many of our children will not climb the income ladder as easily as we and our parents did.

The study, by researchers at Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley, shows that location, location, location may the determiner for whether youngsters will grow up to be better off than their parents.

And guess what: Despite decades of economic gains, the South comes in dead last as a good place to grow up. Especially if the child's parents are poor or middle-class. Specifically, the study finds that the odds of rising to another income level are notably low in certain cities like Memphis, Atlanta, Charlotte and Chattanooga.

In Memphis, the chance that a child raised in the bottom fifth of the nation's income levels can rise to top fifth is only 2.6. In Atlanta, it is only 4 percent. In Charlotte, N.C., that chance is 4.3 percent, and in Chattanooga, it is 5.9 percent.

What does it mean?

It's a measure - a road map if you will - of where it will be most difficult for lower-income households to rise into the middle class and beyond. Another way to look at it is that it's a road map of where not to raise your children if you want them to prosper.

The researchers are quick to say the disparity has little to do with present economic opportunity. After all, the South is a growth area. What this disappointment seems to hinge on is class consciousness as it applies to the culture of education and even children's self confidence.

Looking at a map that color-codes the findings of the analysis of school scores, incomes and a myriad of other data, the children with least future income opportunity fall squarely in what has been labeled for years as "the black belt."

Regions with larger black populations had lower upward-mobility rates. But the researchers' analysis suggested that this was not primarily because of their race. Both white and black residents of Atlanta have low upward mobility, for example.

The researchers, who started out to determine whether tax expenditure policies impacted children's future earning potential - what they call "income mobility" - found instead that poverty and class seems to hold more correlation.

But the classism of the South also adversely affects the future earnings of middle-class children here, too.

For instance, the study shows that fairly poor children in Seattle, those who grew up in the 25th percentile of the national income distribution, do as well financially as middle-class children who grew up at the 50th percentile from Atlanta.

Researchers identified four broad factors that appeared to affect income mobility: All else being equal, upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods. 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.

And the study found that 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. 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.

As Obama noted in his Galesburg rebuild-the-middle-class speech last week:

"... The income of the top 1 percent nearly quadrupled from 1979 to 2007, but the typical family's incomes barely budged. ...

Yes, Mr. President, it is time to retool this country's middle class. And the place to start is investment in jobs and education.