Inequality 5.

The community in which a person grows up exerts a big influence on his/her life-course. D’uh. Only now we have a big social science study to validate this common belief.[1] Growing up in a low-income black area reduces one’s chances of rising into the middle class, even if the person is white.

Some areas are dead-ends for low-income people. The old cotton South, Southern California, and much of the Rust Belt are bad places to be stuck.

Where are the places with the biggest positive impact on the earnings of low-income people? Places with lots of Scandinavians or Mormons: southern Minnesota, northern Iowa, Utah, adjacent parts of Wyoming, and southeastern Idaho. What distinguishes areas favorable to social mobility from places unfavorable to social mobility? The quality of the public schools, the share of two-parent families, the degree of social engagement by the community (functioning civic and religious groups), and the integration of different income groups in a single community.

Of course, the study may actually reveal the character of the people who go, as much as the character of the places to which those people go. Again, d’uh.         Children who moved from a low-income area to a higher-income area were later in life, less likely to become single parents, more likely to go to college, and earned more money. Moreover, the places where poor people cluster are full of poor people. The schools are poor, there is a lot of pathological behavior, and it isn’t very safe. Parents who move from a lower-income place to a better-income place do their children an immense service. Still, they have to pay a cost.

However, the study revealed several disparities. One is between older and younger siblings in the same families. The sooner a kid gets out, the better for their life prospects; the later a kid gets out, the worse for their life prospects. Getting a kid out before age 9 or 10 offers the best hope. Chances decline rapidly after that age. A second disparity is between the sexes. Low-income women who grow up in higher income areas earn about 25 percent more than low-income women who grow up in low-income areas. Low-income men who grow up in a higher-income area earn about 30 percent more than men who grow up in a low-income area. What was not reported was the comparative chances of being employed or unemployed.

The same study found that “commuting time has emerged as the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty.”[2] The longer is the commute, the lower is the chance of improving one’s life. Basically, there aren’t any jobs in the places where poor people live. To get a job, someone has to travel. One of the big problems is that public transportation is not equally distributed across communities. In a lot of middle-class places, everyone has a car so no one cares about public transportation. If someone who is poor wants to live in one of these communities, they need to get a car. Aye, there’s the rub.

Still, what causes higher-income areas to be better than low-income areas? Sure, “they have more money.” Why do they have more money? Because they’ve always had more money, so they have better schools, two-parent families, and kids who go to college? Or because there is a culture that values marriage, family, education, and civic engagement? Which of these factors can be addressed by public policy? Which are matters of “personal responsibility”?

[1] David Leonhardt, Amanda Cox, and Claire Cain Miler, “Change of Address Offers A Pathway Out of Poverty,” NYT, 4 May 2015.

[2] Mikayla Bouchard, “Transportation Emerges As Key to Escaping Poverty,” NYT, 7 May 2015.

Our Kids.

A new book by the Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam has instantly attracted attention (and criticism from the left), so it will be much in the news for a while.[1] Combining research in the scholarly literature with many interviews, Putnam explores the disintegration of America into polarized communities of rich and poor that threaten to become hereditary castes.

Broadly, “rich” kids have parents who finished college; grow up in two-parent families; get a lot more attention from their parents while young; get better quality day-care when their mothers get fed up and go back to work; get dragged to church on Sunday[2]; attend better schools and have more access to developmental extra-curricular activities; eat dinner as a family; are much more likely than are “poor” kids to graduate from college (and to attend better colleges at that).

Broadly, “poor” kids have parents who went no farther than high school; “are increasingly entering the world as an unplanned surprise”; grow up in increasing numbers in broken homes; get about a third less time from their parent; get lower quality day care when their stressed-out mothers have to go back to work; skip church in favor of watching cartoons; don’t eat dinner as a family; are much less likely to attend college (and to attend lesser colleges when they go).

Jason DeParle concludes that Putnam’s “research is prodigious. His spirit is generous. His judgments are thoughtful and fair.”[3] Nevertheless, Putnam’s approach frustrates DeParle. “What [Putnam] omits… is a discussion of the political and economic forces driving the changes he laments.” Doing what Putnam left undone, DeParle argues that income inequality has grown “radically”; that the wealthy exert great influence in politics in defense of their interests; that inequality “gives those at the top [the power] to pull up the ladder”; and that Putnam “overlooks the extent to which it’s … a story about interests and power.” How can it be that, “though Putnam is a political scientist, his account is politics-free”? Doesn’t Putnam read the Times, where all of these things are high-lighted?

What DeParle fails to acknowledge is that some element of success or failure is volitional or behavioral. People drop out of high-school or out of community college; people don’t use contraceptives[4]; and people reject the life structures pursued by the successful. How is more progressive taxation or broader government programs going to counter these behaviors?

Tellingly (but perhaps without having thought through the implications), DeParle remarks that “for most [of the poor kids] the troubles seem to date back generations.” That is, long before economic inequality became a grave issue. Probably the same is true for most of the rich kids: the advantages date back generations.

Perhaps we need to ask follow-on questions. What changed to make long-standing individual failings and family dysfunction into a social disaster? What changed to make conventional bourgeois behavior into such a life advantage? Here we might look for answers in the long-term evolution of the American economy away from heavy industry and toward an economy that disproportionately rewards education. We might also look at the white flight from cities in response to both disorder and integration. Or we can stick with conspiracy theories.

[1] Robert D. Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015).

[2] Or to synagogue on Saturday, or to the mosque on Friday. Faith doesn’t matter. Apparently what matters is making your kids endure difficulty.

[3] Jason DeParle, “No Way Up,” NYT Book Review, 8 March 2015.

[4] $19.99 for a pack of 20 Durex at Walgreen, so don’t start with the cost of birth-control pills.