Design, our social nature, and upward mobility

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A recent article in The Atlantic summarizes a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research about economic mobility in America, which overall hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years, since President Johnson announced the War on Poverty.

But economic mobility varies greatly from city to city, and some of that variability comes from design considerations and from our social nature.

Here’s how the article describes the variability in upward mobility:

“Kids born into the bottom 20 percent of households, for example, have a 12.9 percent chance of reaching the top 20 percent if they live in San Jose. That’s about as high as it is in the highest mobility countries. But kids born in Charlotte only have a 4.4 percent chance of moving from the bottom to the top 20 percent. That’s worse than any developed country we have numbers for.”

As this quote hints at, economic mobility is worst in the South, best in the Plains and Rocky Mountains, and middle-of-the-pack in the West. (The article includes a map of mobility by county).

What accounts for this disparity? In large part, it’s whom we live with–our social connections–and the design of where we live.

Living in stable families helps upward mobility the most. As the article states, “Nothing matters more for moving up than who raises you.” In other words, upward mobility is strong correlated with the number of married couples, single parents, and divorcees in an area. Kids do best in stable, two-parent homes, and living around those stable households helps upward mobility.

If you are in the bottom 20 percent, living in or near middle-class communities helps upward mobility. Middle-class communities tend to be designed better, with good schools, good roads and transportation, health care, and the like. That level of design helps attract good jobs and more community investment, in a virtuous cycle.

Conversely, poorer communities tend to be more divided along racial and economic lines. More poverty and division means more sprawl–in other words, bad design. The more sprawl and division, the less wealthy people are willing to invest in public services like mass transit, in a spiral of deterioration.

That lack of design and public services, including transit, leaves the poor more isolated in their communities with poorer schools, poorer jobs, and awful commutes if they do find a decent job elsewhere.

The article concludes with a plea for denser cities, better schools, and a drug policy that doesn’t incarcerate so many men. Huh? I think a better conclusion would be to design communities in which it’s easier to be social (family and neighbor and citizen), easier to build a career and contribute to the tax base, and easier to access the public services that help us all thrive.

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