If you were born poor in Hampton Roads, you have better odds of rising out of poverty than if you were born into a low-income family in the Washington metro area.
Economic segregation varies widely across metro regions in the United States, and so does economic mobility, argues a report published by the Pew Charitable Trusts, “Mobility and the Metropolis: How Communities Factor into Economic Mobility.”
“American metros with distinct pockets of concentrated wealth and concentrated poverty have lower mobility than places in which the wealthy and poor are more integrated,” concludes the report, which was based upon an analysis of 34 metro areas chosen from the 50 largest in the United states. “Descendants of poor families living in low-mobility metro areas will take four generations to reach their metro area’s mean income, while descendants of poor families living in high-mobility metro areas will need only three.”
Of the two Virginia metro areas included in the study, the Washington MSA was by far the more segregated, with a Neighborhood Sorting Index of 29.1%, making it third most segregated, behind New York City and Newark, N.J., of the 34 regions studied. Hampton Roads had one of the lower indices, at 18.0%, making it the seventh least segregated.
The Washington MSA also ranked below average in economic mobility, with a mobility score of 0.71 (in a scale in which 1 indicates zero mobility and 0 perfect mobility). Hampton Roads scored a 0.22 in mobility.
What do do about it. Most discussion of poverty has focused on federal policies relating to education, taxation and the economy, observes the Pew report. The metropolitan-level data suggests that local factors are important as well. So far, so good. But when it comes to concrete solutions, the report has nothing to offer but the same warmed-over staple of liberal social policies: Expand mixed-income development, develop “synchronized, area-wide plans for transportation, housing, education and economic development,” invest in early childhood development and education.
The problem with “mixed-income development” is that the non-poor aren’t particularly excited about mixing elbows with the poor. The upwardly mobile want to escape the social disorder associated with poverty. There is a free-market analogue to mixed-income development — it’s called gentrification. Gentrification, which occurs house by house rather than in huge, government-sponsored projects, creates mixed-income neighborhoods, but liberals often don’t like this kind of income mixing because it supposedly displaces the poor. (Whether gentrification actually does displace the poor is a question we can discuss another time.)
As for pumping more money into schools in poor neighborhoods, we’re already doing that in Virginia and the results are less than stellar. The City of Richmond, for instance, spends way more money per student than, say, neighboring Henrico County, which has plenty of poor students itself. Arguably, the concentration of poverty in Richmond accounts for the low student achievement and the low likelihood of escaping poverty that the Pew study highlights. But I’m not convinced that spending even more money is the solution. As a practical matter, good luck persuading middle-class families that they should pay higher taxes in order to spend more money not on their own kids but on poor kids across town who are already getting a disproportionate share of resources.
Pew does sing one note on-key: It points to the role of exclusionary zoning in perpetuating income segregation. There, the solution isn’t more money. The solution is relaxing zoning codes that violate the right of property owners to develop land as they please, even if it means catering to lower-income families. Loosen up real estate markets, and poor people will have more options where to live.