September 27, 2017; WIRED
How do the circumstances of your birth impact your lifetime economic security? This question is getting more attention from scholars and advocates concerned with growing economic inequality. In its proceedings from its 2015 economic mobility conference, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis notes that “starting point matters.” In their introduction, “Economic Mobility: An Overview,” Ray Boshara and David Buchholz identify five factors that impact upward mobility: family wealth, race and ethnicity, generation (i.e., state of the economy when you are born), family structure, and family balance sheets (income and expense volatility). When it comes right down to it, your zip code at birth is likely to be one of the strongest predictors of your future economic prospects, and also health, as today’s article on social determinants of health emphasizes.
Boston, a booming metropolis known for having a high level of racial and financial disparities, is taking up this challenge with a new cross-agency project, the Economic Mobility Lab. Housed in the mayor’s office, with initial funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Economic Mobility Lab will collect longitudinal data from all city departments, to examine the impacts of systemic racism and what programs and policies mitigate those impacts. The idea is to embed within city government the tools to examine class and racial disparities over time.
Boston is a good laboratory for examining the intractable economic issues facing the nation. Analyzing 2014 data, the Brookings Institution identified the city as the country’s most unequal in terms of income distribution, with an 18:1 income ratio between those earning in the top 5 percent and those in the bottom 20 percent.
Among the city’s families with children, 30 percent are living in poverty. Neighborhoods with high populations of people of color have high levels of unemployment and low levels of educational achievement despite the city’s booming economy. These differences show up loud and clear in the quantitative data: Median wealth for white families is $240,000, while African Americans have a median wealth of zero.
According to Susan Crawford, writing in WIRED, the city doesn’t do well on tests of economic mobility, either:
It’s below average in helping poor children up the income ladder, and is doing worse than about 75 percent of the country’s counties. (The situation is worse in Boston for poor girls than it is for poor boys.) And low social mobility in Boston, as in many other metro regions of the U.S., is often stubbornly intergenerational, intertwined with income and race segregation, crime rates, and poor schools.
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Boston Mayor Martin (“Marty”) Walsh has put addressing this problem at the center of his 2017 reelection campaign:
Marty believes income and wealth inequality are the biggest economic challenges facing our nation. They reflect decades of unjust systems which create unequal opportunities. What’s more, they have negative impacts on our collective economic health and future. To create a more fair economy, Marty is using all the tools at a mayor’s disposal–from education, to job training, from affordable housing to equitable planning—and inventing some new ones as well.
The Economic Mobility Lab is among those new tools, action-oriented research intended to help solve intractable social problems. Jason Ewas, executive director of the project, tells Crawford:
We’re going to put a stake in the ground and say that we’re going to study in general how people are moving up and down or staying the same, and see if we can see why.
At the same time, the city will keep experimenting with programmatic and policy solutions to see what has the greatest impact, and where it makes sense to invest resources to ensure widespread shared prosperity across the city of Boston.
Among the partners the new Economic Mobility Lab might look to is the Family Independence Initiative (FII). Already partnering with 1100 low-income households in the city of Boston, FII uses technology to strengthen social networks and provide capital resources to help build shared prosperity. Chief Executive Officer Jesús Gerena believes that the Economic Mobility Lab will be most successful if “City Hall shares the information it is finding with the community,” and learns directly from residents and complimentary projects like FII, which is on the ground partnering with families to ensure they achieve their financial goals.—Karen Kahn