I went to Dayton, Ohio a few weeks ago because I had been reading about just how bad people's chances are of climbing out of poverty there. Dayton is a lovely city in many ways, with a lot of things going for it, but its metro area has one of the worst rates of economic mobility in the country, according to research by a team of Harvard and UC Berkeley economists.
Forty percent of kids who grow up in poverty stay poor as adults.
I met plenty of people around town who were not surprised by this statistic. They had seen or lived it firsthand. But then I met Amira Yousif, who lives with her family in a poor neighborhood on the east end of Dayton. When I asked her if she expected her children to do better than her financially, she said “Absolutely!”
“Especially my oldest son,” she said. “He want to become doctor. Then after he finish he will have a lot of money. Then I have to relax and sit and he pay money for me.”
That's your plan? I asked her.
“Yeah, this is my plan,” she said with a laugh, and seemed to be only half-joking.
Yousif may be naturally optimistic, but she also may also be on to something when it comes to the particular confidence she feels in the face of her city's grim statistics on economic mobility.
That’s because even though her family started with almost nothing when they moved to Dayton five years ago, they did have a few things going for them that make their odds of achieving that proverbial American Dream better than most low-income Daytonians.
First off, they are immigrants.
“There's a lot of evidence out there that the United States is a pretty good place for immigrants,” says Nathan Hendren, a professor of economics at Harvard who has been studying rates of economic mobility across the U.S. “We know there are decently high rates for social mobility for immigrants— from an immigrants’ perspective it's a place that has always been known as this land of opportunity.”
To understand what can make some immigrants' experiences so different when it comes to “getting ahead” compared to native born low-income Americans, it might help to know a bit more about Yousif and her family.
When I visited their home one afternoon recently, the Yousifs’ two daughters were playing that classic American basketball game “Pig,” in the back alley. From that vantage point out on the street, the Yousifs’ house, a unit in an old two-story bungalow, looked like most of the houses on the street: slightly run-down, with a crumbling set of concrete steps leading up to the porch.
But where some might see signs of poverty, the Yousifs say they feel rich relative to where they started. Amira Yousif was born in Kuwait, the daughter of Palestinian refugees. Her husband is from Iraq. Both fled to Jordan during the Gulf War, where they lived in uncertain immigration status. Life was hard.
“It's hard to find a job. It's hard to feed the family. Everything is expensive,” says Amira Yousif of that time. “Finally my husband said, ‘There is no future for the kids.’”
In Jordan, Amira and her husband lived in a crammed apartment with their four children. Their 13-year-old daughter Malath says compared to that world, their new home in Dayton feels luxurious. “It’s bigger. We have more space.”
The Yousifs’ oldest son, Suhaib, 16, says he feels access to more opportunities in Dayton. “It motivates us to work hard. In Jordan because I was Iraqi, it was different. You wouldn't have scholarships to colleges. You had to pay for tuition. And I wanted to be a doctor. We couldn't afford it down there.”
Still, when the Yousifs came to the U.S. through a United Nations refugee program, they worried about what they were getting into. Amira says when she found out they had been randomly assigned to Dayton, Ohio, a place she had never heard of, she Googled it.
“I learned that Dayton is a poor city,” she says. “You cannot find jobs — the life is hard there.”
And yet, the moment she stepped off the plane with her family after a 17-hour flight, and walked in to the Dayton airport, her she felt she had been reborn. “You cannot imagine,” she says. “I feel like finally, God sent angel to us to help us.”
The help came in many forms: local church and non-profit groups helped find them a house, helped with the first few months of rent, donated furniture and clothes and appliances.
But even more than the physical support the Yousifs received from various community groups, what may have been more important to their hopes for upward mobility was being tapped in to those groups in the first place. Hendren calls this access to "social capital."
“Social capital you generally can think of that as trust, or measures of civic engagement,” Hendren says. “To what extent do you live in a community as opposed to just a collection of individuals?”
In many cases, research shows that immigrants build special forms of social capital as they connect with other families from their home country, and form cultural and sports and religious organizations together. And all that social capital can help promote upward mobility.
“It could be through role model effects,” Hendren says. “Or through actual connections that a broader community can provide as opposed to just your own parental background.”
Social capital can partly explain why some immigrants are able to climb the economic ladder faster than other low-income people around them. But there's another really important reason why families like the Yousifs have higher rates of economic mobility.
Amira and her husband may have been arrived in Dayton with almost nothing. But the family did have one key thing: education. Amira's husband was trained as an engineer. Amira has a degree in computer programming. At first, that didn't seem to matter in Dayton. After applying for dozens of jobs that matched their qualifications, they both ended up with relatively low-paying jobs in a college cafeteria. The husband worked as a cook. Amira’s job was to wash dishes and wipe tables.
At least at first.
But when I go to visit her at that same cafeteria where she has now worked for five years, her name tag reads “Production Manager.” Partly because she had so many untapped skills, she was quickly promoted.
People often look to immigrant success stories like the Yousifs and ask, if they can climb out of poverty so quickly, why can't anyone?
But Hendren says their story of upward mobility — like those of many immigrants who arrived in the U.S. through legal channels — comes with caveats.
“You do not necessarily want to compare them to the next below-income family,” Hendren says. “There’s a lot of things that are potentially different. They have a very highly educated background.”
All that aside, for Amira Yousif and her family, coming to this country was like coming to a place where, she says, “your dream becomes real.”
With good grades and a college scholarship, their oldest son could have a pretty good shot at becoming a doctor. And once she finishes the night classes she's taking, Amira might be able to start teaching again.
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