Whether it’s going from the proverbial rags to the proverbial riches, or just doing a little better than your parents, stories of upward mobility have long been a part of how we define the American dream. But how possible is that dream today? A group of economists at Harvard and UC Berkeley have been looking in to that question recently. It turns out the answer varies widely depending on geography.
Part of the researchers’ theory is that by looking at places with especially bad rates of upward mobility, to see what those places have in common and what they’re missing, we can learn something about how to optimize chances for upward mobility everywhere.
Which is what brought me to Dayton, Ohio, recently. The Dayton metro area has one of the worst rates of economic mobility in the country. Other areas with poor rates include Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina.
In Dayton, 40 percent of children born poor, stay poor. Just five percent make it to the top fifth of earners by the time they’re adults. Before we get to some of the things that may drive those statistics, it’s worth pointing out that Dayton used to have a very different reputation.
For much of the early 20th century, Dayton was known for innovation, opportunity and upward mobility. The area was full of people from humble backgrounds who “made it.” The story of the Wright Brothers and their airplane is one of the best known. But there is also the story of their high school classmate, the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Dunbar was born in Dayton, in 1872, to parents who’d been born in to slavery. After graduating high school, he was too poor to afford college. He worked as an elevator operator. To support his writing, he sold copies of his poems for a dollar to people who rode on his elevator.
A decade later, Dunbar had catapulted himself in to a different life. He was the first African American poet to become internationally famous. He met the Queen of England and Teddy Roosevelt. He was a major inspiration for poets in the Harlem Renaissance and throughout the twentieth century, including Maya Angelou. Her poem “Caged Bird” is a direct reference to Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy.”
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!
In early twentieth century Dayton, Dunbar could turn his literary success in to economic success. That fact is still evident today on what is now called Paul Laurence Dunbar Street, where a stately Italianate-style two-story home stands. Dunbar bought the building in 1904 at the height of his fame.
“He really wanted to purchase the finest home that he could afford,” says Alex Heckman, who gives tours of the home for the group Dayton History. “It was a lovely middle class neighborhood when he was living here.”
But the neighborhood has changed since Dunbar’s time. Dilapidated and boarded up homes now surround the Dunbar House. Heckman says he worries about bringing visitors here. In just the last few years, three violent felonies have taken place on the property, or right next to it.
“There was a homicide victim whose body was dumped and set on fire literally feet from the visitor’s center entrance. There was a prostitute shot in the alley behind this historic barn. And a few doors down, a young man was shot,” Heckman says. “The last half century of disinvestment in neighborhoods like this one… it’s tragic.”
The Paul Laurence Dunbar Home is now a stately historic landmark, in the middle of an impoverished neighborhood.
How does a place that celebrates a man who so famously achieved the proverbial American dream become a place full of such nightmares?
That is of course not something the handful of paragraphs that make up this article can fully answer. But the fact that Dunbar’s former neighborhood and many others like it in cities across the country, have become so disinvested and so economically isolated — that fact in itself has become a key focal point of economic research on upward mobility.
“Areas where there’s more concentrated poverty — more economic segregation — tend to have lower rates of upward mobility,” says Harvard economist Nathan Hendren.
Hendren is part of a team of researchers at Harvard and UC Berkeley who have combed through decades of Internal Revenue Service data to track the earnings of children born into poor families as they reach adulthood. The team wanted to figure out which places have the best rates of upward mobility, which have the worst, and why.
They have looked at all kinds of possible factors that might be at play: the health of a region’s overall labor market, its median income, tax policies, percentage of immigrants, even the number of bowling alleys per capita (the theory is bowling alleys might be a sign of broader community engagement).
Among all the factors the team analyzed, a few patterns rose to the top. Areas with the worst rates of economic mobility tend to have worse schools and less stable families, which isn’t all that surprising. Perhaps less obvious was the fact that areas with poor economic mobility also tended to have more income inequality and economic segregation.
“It’s really about the extent to which the poor at the bottom of the income distribution are geographically segregated from the middle class and the upper class,” Hendren says. “Are people from disadvantaged backgrounds economically integrated in to the local area?”
In other words, a crucial part of economic mobility seems to be whether rich and poor and middle class people are bumping in to each other, and interacting on a daily basis.
For Kathlene Somerset-Fields, who grew up in Dayton in the 1990s and 2000s, the answer to that question was a distinct “No.”
As a child, Somerset-Fields lived in a public housing project not far from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s home, but long after he died, once the area was known for concentrated poverty and extreme racial segregation. It’s a part of Dayton known the “West Side.” Somerset-Fields says stereotypes about West Dayton are so ingrained that she tries to avoid saying that’s where she grew up during job interviews.
“When you put that down in your resume, it’s like ‘Oh, the West Side of Dayton, here we go,’” she says. “I don’t want to be looked at like that. I’m not the West.”
Growing up, Somerset-Fields faced an overwhelming tangle of struggles. Her mom and step-father battled with drug addiction. Somerset-Fields and her siblings were moved in to foster care for a time. At 13, she had her first child and was basically the mother to her six younger siblings—paying bills, and managing the food stamps and government assistance they survived on.
“It was hard — but I’m grateful for it,” she says, her voice getting lower. “I would say it empowered me. It really did. To strive for better. To want better. To do better.”
And somehow, Somerset-Fields seems to be beating the odds working against those born in to poor families in Dayton and places like it. Today, she is the assistant manager of a youth program at a community center in Dayton. She says she is definitely not rich, but she is not poor either.
“I consider myself surviving. Is that a category?” she laughs. “Surviving on the good end.”
Of course, it’s impossible to say exactly why Somerset-Fields found a way to climb out of poverty when forty percent of her peers in Dayton have not. But when I ask her what she thinks, she immediately points to one relationship in her life, with a teacher she met in a GED class when she was 16 named Diane Brogan-Adams.
On Friday, we look at the two women’s relationship and the support it provided, which researchers think may be a key ingredient for economic mobility.
Correction: an earlier version of this story misspelled Kathlene Somerset-Fields’ name. The text has been corrected.
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