clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

While Americans focus on the 2016 presidential race, the people who directly impact their lives will quietly be elected

Daniel X. O'Neil

We've been told that social mobility will define the 2016 presidential campaign. And we're seeing this already: Jeb Bush wants to give you the "right to rise." Hillary Clinton thinks you could benefit from a more "inclusive prosperity." Prepare to hear nearly two years of presidential candidates telling you how they want you to end up better off than your parents and that your kids should have the chance to surpass you.

It's true that presidents can set a national economic agenda for mobility, but they can't do a lot of the practical things that make a real difference in people's lives. Really, if you want better economic mobility, agonizing over presidential platforms probably isn't going to pay off for you much as picking the right local officials. The choices that mayors and city councils make — from zoning to transit to education — are arguably more effective than anything the president can do, especially if you want to see it in your own life.

So while potential presidential candidates ramp up their social mobility rhetoric, here's the case for looking closer to home, from mayors to city council members to the school board, for better solutions to mobility.

"So much of mobility is happening at a local level, and more and more data is bearing that out," says Erin Currier, director of Pew's Economic Mobility Project.

An intensely local phenomenon

Here's one basic reason we know localities matter when it comes to social mobility: rates vary drastically from city to city in the US.

The US has one of the lowest intergenerational mobility rates among advanced countries, according to the OECD. But as with unemployment or earnings or any other economic statistic, mobility isn't uniform nationwide. Our first real look at mobility on a metropolitan-area level came in a 2013 study by Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren of Harvard and Emmanuel Saez and Patrick Kline of Berkeley. They found that mobility varies widely by metro area — a child growing up in America may altogether have less economic opportunity than a child born in Norway, but you're probably far more likely to climb the income ladder if you're born in Iowa than in Alabama, as their map of mobility shows. The below map shows the average eventual income percentile rank of kids who grow up in homes below the median income.

Mobility by area

(Equality of Opportunity)

As the New York Times' David Leonhardt wrote in his dissection of these numbers, "fairly poor children in Seattle — those who grew up in the 25th percentile of the national income distribution — do as well financially when they grow up as middle-class children — those who grew up at the 50th percentile — from Atlanta."

A city's leaders may not have the power to overcome all of the economic forces that bring its mobility score down, but research suggests that the mayors of Seattle and Atlanta can do a lot to promote policies that will help their cities' children advance.

How cities promote the American Dream

We also know what sorts of strategies actually promote economic mobility. One of them is reducing economic segregation — that is, when poor people live cut off from wealthier people. This is not a problem that Jeb or Hillary can directly address, but it is one your mayor can alleviate.

Economic segregation is one of the factors most closely tied to economic mobility, as Chetty and his peers found, and a 2013 study from Pew's Economic Mobility Project likewise found strong ties between the two factors. Particularly when the poor live separated from the rest of the population, Chetty and his team found, mobility was significantly lower. Chetty and his team only found correlation between these factors, but Pew explained in its paper that this could be because richer parents can seek out communities where the schools are higher-quality and where there's more opportunity, whereas poorer families may be stuck in areas where there are worse schools, more crime, and less opportunity.

Geography of income inequality

Different cities have different patterns of inequality, but local policies can help alleviate this — this map shows income inequality in nine counties, which data blog Vizual Statistix labeled by using the major city in each county. (Vizual Statistix)

Mayors and other local officials can have more sway on this than a president does — when a city is heavily segregated, a city can promote more mixing by promoting affordable housing in more affluent areas. Policies that restrict sprawl have also been shown to promote economic integration — some cities, like San Jose, have enacted urban growth boundaries, a method of reducing sprawl (though some states have also made these a requirement as well). Local governments in the Sacramento area have also implemented a plan to make sure people are connected to jobs, as well as health care and education, as Pew wrote. Cities can also work with nonprofit community development corporations to keep affordable and multi-family housing in gentrifying neighborhoods.

Cities can also boost their poorer populations with better transit. Chetty and his team found that lower commute times were correlated with higher mobility. It's easy to see how this might play out: not only does it promote economic growth by allowing people to easily move around and get to different businesses, but it also helps overcome spatial mismatches between available workers and available jobs.

"Atlanta is the posterchild. It goes on forever, sprawls in all directions," as Reid Ewing, director of the Metropolitan Research Center at the University of Utah, told Vox last year. "It's an example of a place with sprawl and lack of upward mobility, and not particularly good transit relative to other large cities - it's got limited heavy rail."

Then there's education. When I asked San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer about how he hopes to promote better mobility in his city, he said it's all about schools.

"It begins and ends with education, always, and training," he said at an event in Washington, DC, earlier this month. "The skills gap — that is real. ... [We're] not only working with our research institutions and four-year universities but increasingly our community colleges. ... That opportunity can often make the difference between success and failure."

And while Jeb Bush will run heavily on his educational record as governor of Florida, my colleague Libby Nelson has explained that it will be difficult for him to translate those policies to the national level.

Higher education gets a lot of the press when it comes to economic opportunity, but Currier also stresses that early-childhood education has repeatedly proven to be a key determining factor in a child's economic advancement. Study after study has shown the lasting cognitive and earnings benefits of giving children quality early education.

Many education initiatives are undertaken at the state level, but cities can do it on their own as well. Tulsa, Oklahoma, is one famous example of a city investing heavily in its youngest children. Children — particularly young boys and low income children — that went through its pre-K program ended up doing better at math, as Georgetown's Deborah Phillips told NPR last year.

hillary clinton (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

How much can Hillary Clinton help you improve your economic station in life? (Getty Images)

What can a president do?

This isn't to say that mayors can do everything. A bustling national economy will naturally make a city's fortunes better, and a recession will make it worse. Regional economic forces can also keep a city from boosting its mobility (or might help keep it high). It's also true that state officials matter. Minneapolis and St. Paul's regional tax-base sharing plan, for example, redistributes tax revenue more evenly throughout the metro region. That plan was a result of a 1971 bill passed by the state legislature.

It also isn't to say that presidents can't help foster social mobility. It's easy to see how some recent policies from the White House — a higher minimum wage, a bigger earned income tax credit, or free community college, for example — would help some people build up their assets or become more valuable workers.

But in many of the areas associated with higher mobility, the president — with the help of Congress — can only lay the groundwork. The federal government can give out transportation grants, but it's up to local governments to connect poorer areas to the rest of the city. Washington can promote Section 8, but cities need to figure out how to promote affordable or mixed-use housing. The federal government can spend more on education or introduce programs like Common Core, but cities know which schools are troubled or not, and local officials can, for example, adjust school district boundaries.

"The federal government has the ability to do broad-strokes policy and designate funding for specific policy areas, even if that has devolved to the states or local areas," says Currier.

Cities in particular, she says, can target policy to neighborhoods (and therefore people) that need help: "How you are going to organize your city, how you're going to maintain safety, how you'er going to make green space available across the metro area, the way that certain investments are being made and where they're made, there's transportation — there's a lot of things that are still local as well."

All politics is local...but not quite all economics

Local elected officials have a lot of power, but of course they can't control everything. Plenty of other factors outside local governments' control can tank a city's economy: Yuma, Arizona, home to the highest metro area unemployment rate in America, is for example a victim of geographic and even climate forces — the more temperate San Diego is just a few hours away, as well as the larger Phoenix, meaning tiny, sun-baked Yuma faces stiff competition for bringing in businesses. Even under the best mayor, that city — or any city facing high unemployment or slow growth — may not become a paragon of mobility.

But there are important reasons, even beyond economics, to vote in local elections. First, there's the fact that mathematically, your vote for the city council member from your district or ward will mean more than your vote for a national office. Moreover, those votes have grown even more important as interest in local elections has dwindled, and those local races also disproportionately draw older, whiter, higher-income voters, as Governing magazine wrote last year (and even in national elections, lower-income voters are far worse-represented than more affluent voters). That means the people who may need mobility-promoting policies the most aren't making their voices heard.

If it's true that mayors and other local officials are the best at promoting mobility, then Florida Gov. Jeb Bush may be on the right track. Last month, Vox's Matt Yglesias wrote that Jeb Bush sounded in a recent economic speech like he's running for Mayor of America. If he wants to help people move up the ladder, he might do better to become a mayor or city council member, not President of the US.

Update: This piece was updated to clarify that that map from Vizual Statistix depicts county boundaries.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.