Raj Chetty, a prominent economics professor at Harvard University, has done fantastic research that shows how varied the level of upward mobility is across the United States. According to Chetty, you can see differences in the level of upward mobility and map those differences onto specific factors about areas at the level of zip codes and neighborhoods. This is an important aspect of poverty to consider, because it means that opportunities and success in life are influenced by social factors that are specific to the places where we grow up. It reveals the danger of economic segregation and the importance of finding ways to work together to address problems of poverty.
Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer address this point in their book $2.00 A Day by writing about the work of sociologist William Julius Wilson. They write, “Wilson argued that the reason poverty had persisted in America even in the face of the War on Poverty declared by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 was that in the 1970s and 1980s, poor African Americans had become increasingly isolated, relegated to sections of the city where their neighbors were more and more likely to be poor, and less and less likely to find gainful employment.”
Opportunity is somewhat dependent on the people around you. That is the lesson from Chetty and from Wilson as presented in $2.00 A Day. If opportunity, success, and upward mobility were entirely within the control of the individual, then we would expect to see uniform mobility across the country. Instead, we see areas where people are more able to advance economically, and areas where almost no one advances.
When you are in a ghetto you are segregated from opportunity. Everyone you know is also likely in the same economic position that you are in. You don’t know anyone who can inspire you to go to school, work hard, and seek out a meaningful career that is a good fit for you. The failure to advance is not a failure of you personally, or even of your family and the people around you. The failure lies with the larger society which allows pockets of deep inequality and economic segregation to persist.
I am not currently part of the solution. My wife and I have chosen to live in a suburban neighborhood where most people presumably are in pretty similar economic states as we are. We are as economically segregated as anyone else in the nation. It is hard to tell people to not chose to economically segregate themselves, and efforts that bring more low-income (or even just affordable) housing to high price neighborhoods are often voted down and rejected. I don’t have a solution to the economic segregation problem, but the research from Chetty and the lessons from Wilson show that it is clear that economic segregation decreases economic mobility, placing the belief that anyone can succeed as long as they work hard enough on shaky ground.