Income study ignites debate

A study that determined that children’s economic prospects as adults have lots to do with where they were raised is being hailed as an important piece of research, while the study’s lack of conclusions about the reasons for the disparities has sparked a robust national discussion about what the data means.

One striking feature of the study is the map it produces, showing lower economic mobility across the South.

It’s hard to escape the similarities between that map and a census map showing states with large percentages of black residents, as blogger Andrew Sullivan pointed out. Sullivan commented that the two maps together suggest “how much harder it is for poor people of color to have a chance to succeed.”

Whet Moser went deeper in a lengthy Chicago Magazine piece, tracing low economic mobility in the South today back through the Great Migration and the legacy of sharecropping and slavery. Moser posted a map showing that states with large populations of enslaved people in 1860 appears to synch up with areas that have poor economic mobility today.

“Slavery and sharecropping drove better-educated blacks out of the South, particularly from its poorest areas, leaving concentrated poverty behind and setting a devastated region back further still,” Moser said.

The authors of the Harvard/Berkeley study say they found that place, and not race, is the determining factor in economic mobility.

“It is absolutely true that areas with a larger fraction of African-Americans have lower rates of economic mobility,” said Nathaniel Hendren, a Harvard University economics professor who was one of the four principal researchers. “But we can soundly reject the idea that the South has lower rates of economic mobility because it has more black people.”

The study did find a strong connection between limited economic mobility and areas where people tend to live in residential areas essentially segregated by race and class.

In Atlanta, Mayor Kasim Reed told National Public Radio that problems related to income mobility “have their roots in issues that date all the way back to the Civil War.”

Reaction to the study also has been political.

“Poor kids don’t exactly have a great chance in life no matter where they live, but in the South they have almost no chance at all,” said Kevin Drum, a political blogger for Mother Jones. “If you take a look at the policy preferences of southern governors and legislatures, that’s apparently exactly the way they like it.”

On the other end of the political spectrum, the S.C. Policy Council used the study to call for lower taxes and school choice, saying that “state policies conspire to keep South Carolinians in the lower fifth.”

The Policy Council criticized the state’s high sales tax rate, and the fact that South Carolina’s top income-tax rate kicks in at low-income levels. The unsigned post said that “until lawmakers lower tax rates across the board and begin developing a more flexible, choice-driven education system, expect to keep seeing South Carolina at the bottom of the income-mobility ladder.”

On the urban-planning front, the study stoked the ongoing fight between traditional suburban growth and new urbanism.

The back-and-forth started after a New York Times’ article and interactive graphic about the study, which began with an anecdote about a woman’s two-hour commute to work in Atlanta.

“The low-income neighborhoods here often stretch for miles, with rows of houses and low-slung apartments, interrupted by the occasional strip mall, and lacking much in the way of good-paying jobs,” reporter David Leondardt wrote.

The Harvard/Berkeley study found that economic segregation is an important factor influencing income mobility. The notion of sprawl wasn’t mentioned in the study or Leondardt’s article, but debate over urban-development policies quickly ensued.

Liberal economist Paul Krugman said income mobility could be lower in Atlanta partially “because sprawl leaves low-income workers stranded away from the jobs.”

Wendell Cox, a critic of anti-sprawl policies who was part of an unsuccessful 2007 effort to defeat a mass-transit tax in Charlotte, pushed back in a lengthy piece on the pro- and con- sprawl arguments.

“The reality is that the US has the world’s most sprawling cities, yet the 50 most affluent metropolitan areas per capita in the world include 38 in the United States,” Cox wrote.

And not to be left out of the discussion, supporters of shale oil fracking noted that many areas in the U.S. with high income mobility are also areas that are hotbeds of natural gas exploration.

“This, then, is just one more reason to be thankful for our country’s embrace of the new energy source,” said blogger Walter Russell Mead at The American Interest.

The study’s authors said that “the vast majority of the difference in mobility across areas is unrelated to economic growth.” However, Hendren told The Post and Courier that energy exploration seems obviously connected to outsized odds — up to one-in-three — that poor children born around 1980 in North Dakota had become top-earning adults by 2010.

“Mobility is just off the charts there,” he said.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.

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