On the surface, this was good news: A landmark report out last week from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that even as economic inequality (the ever-yawning chasm between the very rich and the rest of us) has spiked in recent years, income mobility (the ability of those born into lower-class households to climb the socioeconomic ladder) hasn’t changed in a half-century.
In other words, the rich may be getting richer, but the poor still have a shot of what we rather arrogantly call the American Dream — at least as much of a shot as their grandparents did. Income mobility isn’t getting better or worse; instead, it remains at a consistent level of suck compared to other developed nations: About 8 percent of Americans born into the bottom income quintile will make it into the top quintile in their lifetimes.
That much made headlines all over the country (though not, as best I can tell, in the Times-Union). But there was another — and for my money, equally fascinating — aspect to this research: The strength of the American Dream depends on where you live. In Salt Lake City and Pittsburgh and San Jose, the Dream is alive and well; in the Southeast — especially in Jacksonville — less so.
Of the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas, Jacksonville ranked 46th in income mobility (less than 5 percent of those born at the bottom will make it to the top), by far the worst ranking in Florida.
Why? The researchers found five strong correlates — not necessarily causatives — with income mobility: racial and income segregation (the more segregated the poor are from the middle class, the less mobile an area is); local policies (higher-taxing, higher-spending areas have a more robust American Dream); education (higher-quality schools produce greater mobility); social capital (areas with more muscular civic engagement and religiosity levels — and lower crime rates — are more mobile); and family structure (children from low-income, single-parent families have less of a chance of making it).
Jacksonville is, to my eyes, sprawling and segregated, apathetic and detached, petrified of taxation, committed to public education at only the basest level — and, despite its fervent religiosity, the city has one of the highest divorce rates in the country. Which means we have all the ingredients to suffocate the American Dream.
These variables interconnect, of course. But the most statistically significant were family structure and segregation. And an important aspect of segregation is urban sprawl: “Areas with less sprawl have significantly higher rates of upward mobility,” the report says. In short, sprawl makes it more difficult to reach the resources that facilitate the American Dream.
More than that, though, sprawl keeps the poor isolated, away from good jobs and schools and role models. It also keeps them out of sight, effectively inuring policymakers to their plight.
Sprawl makes us selfish. If we care about equality of opportunity, we’re going to have to come to grips with that sooner rather than later.