I wanted to share my PennLive.com op-ed today on a new report offering Pennsylvania some optimism when it comes to upward social mobility but also serving as a warning for lawmakers on the policies they pursue.
The United States is often called the “land of opportunity,” but until recently we had little actual evidence on just how much economic status as an adult is determined by the station of your birth.
A team of economists at Harvard and Berkeley are breaking new ground on that front. They have a new report out that provides the most detailed information yet on what works — and what doesn’t — when it comes to keeping the American Dream alive.
The good news for Pennsylvania is that we are a “state of opportunity” — at least relative to other states and regions.
The study tracks the economic status of more than 6 million Americans born in 1980 and 1981, divided into over 700 regions. The researchers compared the economic status of the families of these individuals when they were 15 to 20 years old with their own income at age 30 and 31.
This study allows us to begin to sort through the regional characteristics associated with higher — and lower — social mobility. This is perhaps the most exciting aspect of the study: we no longer need to talk about upward mobility in a knowledge vacuum. Now we all get to test our theories against actual evidence.
The national media have latched onto the Pittsburgh region’s high level of mobility in this study. The region ranks fourth highest among the 30 most populous regions in upward mobility. One in 10 children from a family in the lowest-income fifth make it into the top fifth — compared to 1 in 25 in Atlanta.
But the good news on upward mobility is pretty much a Pennsylvania-wide story. The Capitol region is a smidgen behind Pittsburgh, with one in every 10.6 children from the lowest-income fifth making it to the top fifth.
On average, Harrisburg-area children born into families in the lower half of the income scale (0 to 50th percentile) make it to the 45th percentile as adults, compared to those in Charlotte, N.C., who make it to only the 36th percentile.
What accounts for higher and lower rates of mobility across the more than 700 regions? Based on the rich data in this study, the researchers highlight four factors: high-quality K-12 education; strong families; the size and dispersion of the middle class; and citizen engagement.
These factors resonate with Pennsylvania’s good outcomes.
Most parts of the commonwealth enjoy high-quality public education. During the period of study, 1996 to 2011, the state increased education funding to lower-income districts — first to lower-income rural districts under Gov. Tom Ridge and later to lower-income districts more broadly under Gov. Ed Rendell.
Pennsylvania has strong families, at least measured by its low divorce rates.
And the state’s middle-class, while it took it on the chin in the 15 years before 1996, remains relatively robust. In rural and suburban areas, the middle class is also well dispersed, with the school experiences and upbringing of low-income children not radically different from those of other children.
Pennsylvania does have concentrated poverty in its cities. This is one reason Philadelphia had the least upward mobility of any of the state’s 12 regions. It is also a factor holding down progress in regions with small cities, including Harrisburg, York, and Lancaster.
The new study — in addition to offering some good news on social mobility for Pennsylvania — is a crushing indictment of the “Southern Strategy” in public policy. Five southern states – Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina – stand out as having by far the largest concentrations of low-mobility regions in the country.
These are states that fund K-12 education at below average levels, three of them near the bottom of the 50 states. They have embraced anti-union and right-to-work traditions that shrink the middle class, and have a history of voter suppression that limits citizen engagement.
Looking forward, two lessons stand out.
First, the new study should give policymakers in Harrisburg pause.
In the last few years, Gov. Tom Corbett and the Legislature have made deep cuts to education funding, especially for urban communities with concentrated poverty. These and other state budget cuts have cost Pennsylvania tens of thousands of middle-class jobs in public schools and universities, slowing down the private-sector recovery and shrinking the middle class.
The state has also sought to suppress civic engagement with one of the nation’s most restrictive voter ID laws.
Which brings me to the second lesson: thanks to this new study, we now have a better idea of what will revive and what will destroy the American dream.
We KNOW that Pennsylvania’s recent embrace of the “Southern Strategy” will plunge the Harrisburg region and the rest of the commonwealth to the bottom of the upward mobility rankings.
So how about it? Let’s change direction in Harrisburg and preserve Pennsylvania’s position as a “state of opportunity.”