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Stacey Calvin is a busy mom in suburban Atlanta whose passion is helping kids. When she isn’t watching her three kids or volunteering at their school, she works at a day care center on the other side of town.
Stacey takes a combination of two buses and two trains for a nearly two-hour commute each way. She checked into moving closer to the job, but that neighborhood’s prices were too high.
Despite Atlanta’s prosperity, the region is one of the most economically segregated areas of the country. A new study found that these types of communities make it that much tougher for the poor to get ahead.
Researchers at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley, discovered that several cities in the Deep South and the Rust Belt have impoverished neighborhoods that go for miles and miles, separating the residents from good jobs — or sometimes any employment at all. In contrast, several cities in the Great Plains, West and Northeast have less divided neighborhoods providing the poor, middle class and wealthy more opportunities to rub shoulders and work together.
The researchers originally focused on the effects of social engineering through the tax code. Programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit are supposed to help citizens out of poverty and these decidedly non-conservative universities wanted to see how well they worked. Instead they found that these big government initiatives have negligible effect outside of complicating our tax code.
The researchers concluded that larger tax credits for the poor and higher taxes on the affluent seemed to improve income mobility only slightly. The economists also found only modest or no correlation between mobility and the number of local colleges and their tuition rates or between mobility and the amount of extreme wealth in a region.
But the researchers identified four broad factors that appeared to affect income mobility, including the size and dispersion of the local middle class. All else being equal, upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods.
Though the researchers were surprised, their conclusions confirm common sense. If a child is trapped in several square miles of poverty with few job creators or even economically successful role models, the ghetto could be all he knows. If instead success and employment is within reach, he will see that a better life is attainable.
The rest of the researchers’ findings read like a conservative editorial on personal economics.
Income mobility was also higher in areas with more two-parent households, better elementary schools and high schools, and more civic engagement, including membership in religious and community groups.
The New York Times article glides over this data as an embarrassing aside, but it confirms everything right-leaning social commentators have said for decades. While no childhood will ever be perfect, kids have better prospects with an intact family, schools that actually educate, and participation in church, synagogue or social groups.
The key to success isn’t a feel-good tax write-off or a check from some far-off bureaucrat’s desk. Instead of increasing dependency, Washington should allow families, schools and communities to flourish without entangling red tape and feckless interference.
Follow Jon on Twitter at @ExJon.