Happy Mardi Gras! And welcome to the State of the South blog!
Since its publication last year, MDC’s State of the South report on the upward mobility of Southern young people—or, rather, the lack of it—has touched a nerve across the region. Starting today, we want to use this website to keep the conversation going, looking at issues and data related to economic mobility, as well as highlighting examples and insights about the ways that Southern communities are building what we called in the report an “infrastructure of opportunity.”
And this being Mardi Gras, we begin by taking a look at income mobility data in New Orleans where, today, hundreds of thousands of people are celebrating as parades featuring pretend kings and royalty roll through the streets. New Orleans has always been a place that celebrates its unique history and character, and Mardi Gras is emblematic of that. But unfortunately, Mardi Gras also has become more of a reflection of the economic inequities that grew in the waning years of the 20th Century, as tourism and a service economy replaced the port and oil business as the city’s largest employers. The pretend gap between royalty and common folk has become, unfortunately, much more real.
New Orleans made a remarkable comeback after Hurricane Katrina. But as the city readies for the storm’s 10th anniversary in August, it still struggles with pre-Katrina economic inequalities. You can see that in the chart below that shows—using appropriate carnival colors—where young people born at different income levels are ending up as adults:
Looking at the bar on the far left, we see that more than a third of the children born to parents in the bottom income quintile (making less than $24,900 a year) stay there as adults, and another third only make it up one quintile. Just 5 percent of children raised in families in the bottom quintile make it to the top quintile as adults. Looking at the bar on the far right, we see a much different story of how the children of the highest income families (making $107,900 or more a year) fare: 37 percent stay in the top quintile as adults.
The same mobility chart for other Southern metros follows a similar pattern, but New Orleans is among the cities offering the weakest boost up the income ladder. In Houston, the Southern metro with the highest level of income mobility, 28 percent of those born in the bottom quintile stay there as adults, and another 28 percent move up only one quintile. In Atlanta, one of the metros with the lowest levels of mobility, 33 percent of those born in the bottom quintile stay there as adults, and 36 percent move up only one quintile.
New Orleans also has a higher proportion of young people born into the bottom income quintile than in Houston or Atlanta. The income quintiles reflect the income distribution of the entire U.S., meaning 20 percent of families nationally fall into each quintile. In New Orleans, a disproportionately large 32 percent of families fall into the bottom income quintile—while Houston and Atlanta are both much closer to one-fifth.
At Mardi Gras, New Orleans largely sets aside debate and discussion of public policy and community frictions for a civic celebration in which all can participate. When the discussion resumes, it will likely be around Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s effort (as mentioned in the State of the South report) to connect government, private employers, and educators to remove workforce barriers, build an infrastructure of opportunity, and improve economic mobility for the Crescent City’s young people. And the State of the South blog will be here to provide periodic updates on that effort, and similar efforts around the region.
It is the mission of the State of the South reports—and this blog—to contribute to the South’s understanding of itself, using data and analysis to provide a realistic perspective on what the Southern economy looks like now, how it is changing, and how our region’s people fare in it. The blog aims to provide a way for leaders and residents around the South to continue the conversation about how the region can, and must, build an infrastructure of opportunity for its youth and young adults.
Laissez les blog temps rouler! After the good times roll today on the streets of New Orleans, we invite you to return to the blog as we carry on the task of building stronger communities that offer propulsion up the ladder of opportunity. Soon you’ll hear about the relationship between job quality and mobility, the growing racial wealth gap, and patterns of disinvestment in public opportunity systems. We’d love for you to join us, so find us on Twitter and Facebook, or email us, and share your thoughts and the ideas you think we should be talking about. We look forward to hearing from you.