“We the People.” Our Constitution begins with those three simple words, words we’ve come to recognize mean all the people, not just some; words that insist we rise and fall together, and that’s how we might perfect our Union.
In his final State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Obama covered a range of important issues—from foreign relations to scientific and tech innovation to a call for respectful bipartisanship (yes, please!)—but the theme that resonated most for us on the State of the South blog was about economic trends that have made it increasing difficult for working and middle class families to get ahead:
All these trends have squeezed workers, even when they have jobs; even when the economy is growing. It’s made it harder for a hardworking family to pull itself out of poverty, harder for young people to start their careers, tougher for workers to retire when they want to. And although none of these trends are unique to America, they do offend our uniquely American belief that everybody who works hard should get a fair shot.
This struggle for a fair shot has been particularly acute in the South, where even in our most economically dynamic places, people who grow up in low-income families are more likely to stay there as adults than almost anywhere else in the nation, and only small numbers make it to the middle- or upper-income levels. According to the Equality of Opportunity Project, intergenerational mobility is lowest in the South, as shown by comparing outcomes for adult children who grew up in families with the same incomes but in different places. In the following chart, the 100 largest U.S. commuting zones are ranked by the estimated percentage gain or loss in income for an adult child from a low-income family, compared to the national average. One way to think of this is that there is a greater “penalty” for people who grew up in low-income families in some places than in others. At 95th, people from low-income families in Raleigh earn an estimated 13 percent less as adults than those born in a place with average mobility. Nine out of ten of the lowest ranked metros are in the South; in the highest ranked third of metros, only two Southern cities, both in Texas, make the cut:
The problem is not just that too few people have a chance to escape poverty; there are large numbers working and middle class Southerners who are economically insecure. When so many people are unable to find consistent work that pays reasonably well, our whole economy suffers: people cannot build savings and wealth through critical investments like homeownership. They cannot afford to go back to school and build skills for a new career in an emerging industry. They cannot save up to take a risk and start a business. And, critically, they cannot invest in educational and extracurricular enrichment for their children or save for their postsecondary education. For every generation that is not adequately prepared for economic success, the situation remains the same for their children.
Say a hardworking American loses his job — we shouldn’t just make sure that he can get unemployment insurance; we should make sure that program encourages him to retrain for a business that’s ready to hire him. If that new job doesn’t pay as much, there should be a system of wage insurance in place so that he can still pay his bills. And even if he’s going from job to job, he should still be able to save for retirement and take his savings with him. That’s the way we make the new economy work better for everybody.
There are policies that can make supposedly “transitional” jobs in our economy quality jobs. Educational policies can support training with stackable credentials so people can move up the ladder from entry-level to a career. And, as President Obama said, there are policies that can support start-ups and small businesses and larger employers “who’ve figured out that doing right by their workers or their customers or their communities ends up being good for their shareholders.” But as important as good public policy is, it must be implemented through public and private systems and institutions—schools, colleges, social service agencies, and employers—that are often not working together to address barriers to economic security. Policy can provide direction and incentives for systems change, but changed outcomes at scale require changed systems.
This Washington Post story from Chico Harlan, demonstrates the massive systems failure —in access to and quality of transit, housing, education, and employment—for low-wealth people in the South. The story follows a woman in Atlanta who faces a two-hour journey on public transit to get to a job interview: sixty-nine stops on a bus; a nine-minute train ride; an additional 49 stops on a bus; a quarter-mile walk. All for what would have been a 27-minute drive. Harlan’s article reveals the additional barriers individuals face—those hardworking Americans mentioned above—when available housing and quality child care are far from job opportunities. Those barriers arise when systems—which may appear invisible to many of us, because they are working well enough for us—are not designed to achieve the outcomes we often say we want: a fair shot for everyone who is willing to put in the effort.
If you’d like to discuss your Southern mobility experience with the President, you can join a post-State of the Union interview today on YouTube at 2:15 ET. If you’d like to discuss mobility in the South with less presidential people like us, find us on Twitter and Facebook, #stateofthesouth.
Abby Parcell contributed to this post.