Atlanta’s (non) upward mobility: ‘Better quality public education is consequential’

A guest blogger and urban politics expert weighs in

owensEditor’s note: Plenty of media types have chimed in on the recently released Harvard/Berkeley study that documents the impact of geography on social mobility. And it’s been widely noted—locally and nationally—that metro Atlanta ranks low when it comes to the odds of a child born into the lowest rungs of poverty growing up to be an adult in the wealthiest income bracket. To get perspective, we’re approaching experts outside the media sphere to comment on the study in general and the metro Atlanta findings in particular. Here, Michael Leo Owens, chair of the governing board of the Urban Affairs Association and associate professor of Political Science at Emory University, offers his take.

My own research is in a different vein from the Harvard/Berkeley study. However, my read of their study/findings in light of other studies/findings on economic mobility—which I teach in courses at Emory and rely on for some of my research—is that they’re on the mark.

One thing that stands out is that they did choose to see a possible correlation between income segregation and income mobility. The hypothesis, and the causal argument one would make in doing so, is a simple but longstanding one for social welfare scholars: Proximity matters. That’s to say, the closer the poor are spatially to the non-poor, the greater the likelihood that they have access to better opportunities that will lead to movement up the socioeconomic ladder. It’s one reason, for instance, many policymakers and scholars support the idea of de-concentrating the poor, especially by razing public housing and fostering a mix of incumbent upgrading and gentrification.

The impact of segregation by income is also a reason why many scholars, especially urban historians and sociologists, point to the exodus of the middle-class from cities—the “secession of the successful” as Robert Reich once put it—as a decision with dreadful implications for the poor.

That connects, of course, to the Harvard/Berkeley team’s other finding—the correlation between quality of public schools and income mobility. Better quality public education is consequential to the prospects of low-income people’s kids getting decent educations and other opportunities associated with education. This includes seemingly simple things like field trips, quality lunches, and recess, as well as more complex factors like high quality teachers and curricula. At least, that’s the theory of change behind movements for vouchers, charter schools, and scholarships to private boarding schools in the Northeast and elsewhere.