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.


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7 responses to “Mobility and the Metropolis”

  1. DJRippert Avatar

    You need to be very careful in comparing “the Washington MSA” to Hampton Roads.

    The “Washington MSA” covers three of four separate and distinct state or state-like entities: DC, VA, MD, WV.

    DC’s public schools are horrible. Montgomery and Fairfax County have good public schools.

    There is no single governmental entity in charge of the “Washington MSA”. You’d have to look at statistics on a state by state (including DC as a “State”) basis or even a county by county basis.

  2. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    This recalls the Richmond Mayor’s recent and ongoing efforts to do the always controversial of mixing neighborhoods in perhaps more innovative ways.

    After reading that article here I looked into what those new ways might be. In so doing, I came across the new book “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.” It’s a book worth reading. Remarkably, its author’s name is Paul Tough.

  3. well.. “diversity” has a lot of meanings.

    I found apartment and townhouse life not wonderful even though there were no “poor” people there but there were more than a few folks who did not know nor care how to be a good neighbor…

    you know what I mean. The guy and gal who can’t go a week without violent encounters everyone who is in near proximity gets to “enjoy”. The guy with the dog that lets him poop at the nearest place away from his front door. the fella who decides to get a “fix er up” and park it for months while he works on it and the kids who think your car is perfect for “etching”… etc…

    it’s a crap shoot. Sometimes you get a wonderful “diversity” and sometimes you get the richest essence of the Hoi Polli.

    OTOH, I have known poor who were the nicest people.. who raised their kids right and knew how to and strived to be good neighbors.

    and I know one couple that lived in a really nice working class neighborhood in Portsmouth – that over 30 years changed from kids riding bikes and neighbors visiting on the sidewalks to hookers and drug thugs on your front lawn.

    I do not think it’s a “zoning” problem. In many working class neighborhoods – the housing stock is “varied” with all manner of oddities and unconventional architecture… something that is totally not what some people want in a neighborhood.

    It’s not Ozzie and Harriet, it’s Roseanne.

  4. Breckinridge Avatar

    Interesting. Makes me wonder about housing patterns pre WWII, when I suspect there was more income diversity (if less racial diversity) in many urban areas. You can look at the older Richmond neighborhoods and see it reflected in the existing housing (all expensive now, of course.) Then along comes the Great Society urban renewal projects and the rise of public housing projects, creating exactly the kinds of conditions of concentrated poverty and failure this study is talking about.

    Can’t say it now without being called a racist right wing scumbag, but I suspect 23rd century economists and historians are going to look at the anti-poverty efforts of FDR and LBJ as gigantic failures. About the only thing that worked well in the pre-war effort was rural electrification and the land conservation programs (to fight the dustbowl) and the best anti-poverty program post war was the GI Bill and the Eisenhower highway program.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      I agree generally.

      I have long thought that LBJ’s policies (save for his exceptional civil rights records), and most particularly his Great Society and Vietnam policies, did more active, deep, and long term harm to this nation that any other president in history.

      I also agree that FDR’s New Deal policies failed to achieve their objectives of lifting the country out of recession, and most failed. But that FDR’s success in holding the country together was a titanic achievement. And also that FDR was a great war president, a second only to Lincoln and Washington.

      Indeed, I believe the greatest US military minds and leaders in WW II were FDR and Earnest King in that order. And that both men knew it, and acted accordingly.

  5. have to separate urban myth from reality here.

    before Social Security, a majority of retired were destitute.

    Roosevelt also did food stamps and the GI Bill.

    before Medicare a majority of seniors did not have health insurance – Lyndon Johnson

    Head Start – Lyndon Johnson

    Keep in mind when documenting socialist POTUS “failures”

    that Nixon created the EPA and supported the individual mandate for health care.

    and Reagan created EMTALA and the Earned Income Credit

    and Bush created NCLB and Medicare Part D

    both GOP and DEMs played roles in many of these programs – in the past.

  6. In fact Ronald Reagan said this about the EIC: “….

    “the best antipoverty, the best pro-family, the best job creation measure to come out of Congress.”

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