by Zach Blizard, Guest Columnist
The study of upward economic mobility has gotten significant attention of late. World-renowned social scientists have tackled the issue. Shocking findings have come to light. Studies show that in the United States, the share of children who will go on to earn incomes higher than their parents has fallen drastically. In the 1940s, the share was just over 90 percent, but by the 1980s, it was only around 50 percent. Studies have also found that some areas of the country offer less mobility than most other developed countries. One of these places may just be Winston-Salem/Forsyth County.
The case of Forsyth County is baffling. At face value, the county appears to be thriving and a fantastic place for achieving the American Dream. Winston-Salem is the state’s fifth-largest municipality. We have Fortune 500 and 1000 companies, well-respected colleges and universities, nonprofits and foundations that have long helped people improve their lives. But it is still very difficult for many of our fellow county residents to adequately feed, house and clothe their families. According to relevant estimates, the county is third from the bottom, out of more than 3,000 counties, in terms of the probability that a child born into poverty will eventually escape it later in life. That cries out for answers.
Upward economic mobility, like any social outcome, is incredibly complex. There are no simple answers to why mobility rates are low in some areas, yet high in others. For example, some analysts propose that concentrated poverty is the primary culprit for low mobility rates. Forsyth County’s poverty rate is in the seventy-third percentile of the US at 20 percent. However, there are many areas across the US with high poverty rates but also high rates of economic mobility, like King’s County, NY, which has a poverty rate of 23 percent, but 12 percent of low-income children ended up in the Top 20 percent of the household income distribution. Only 5 percent of Forsyth County children ended up at the same income level. Hence, poverty and concentrations of it are not the whole story. Adding to the complexity is that mobility rates at the tract level differ across different groups of people.
In research we did at Winston-State University’s Center for the Study of Economic Mobility, a census tract-level analysis was done on the mobility rates for Blacks, whites, and Hispanics. For Blacks, mobility rates are most strongly correlated with the tract’s employment rate. For whites, rates are most strongly correlated with the fraction of people that are college educated. For Hispanics, the strongest correlate is mean commute time. Population density is negatively correlated to Black mobility rates, while it is positively correlated to Hispanic mobility rates. Hence, mobility rates of certain groups are sometimes correlated, with varying strength, to different variables. (To see a policy paper on our research, go to Upward Economic Mobility Among Blacks, Whites, and Hispanics in Forsyth County, NC: A Descriptive Analysis (wssu.edu).
Different demographic groups are likely faced with different constraints. The strong, positive correlation between employment rate and Black mobility indicates that there is an interaction between sets of constraints and labor market decisions in Black communities. In the age of COVID-19, intervention or promotion of the traditional labor market may be infeasible. Local governments could promote and facilitate integration into online labor markets such as Amazon Mechanical Turk and Upwork in order to increase employment rates. Regarding Hispanic mobility, it is possible that Forsyth County harbors idiosyncratic relationships between mobility and commute times for Hispanics. Better data on public transportation use in Hispanic communities could reveal whether any substantive connection exists between the mean commute time and Hispanic mobility.
Breaking down measurements of economic mobility by demographic shows that different groups potentially rise out of poverty at different levels and in different ways. For Forsyth County, working to increase the employment rate within the Black community could increase Black children’s chances of rising out of poverty and narrow the mobility gap that exists between Blacks and Hispanics and whites.
Finding research paths to upward economic mobility is challenging because it’s such a complex subject. There are lots of intriguing findings, as in this research, but no easy answers. And we don’t go for the easy answers. Often, as in this research, we dig away, finding a few gold nuggets, and objectively report what we find. We follow the data where it takes us, learning much on the journey, and putting it before the public. We learn from each other at the center, and we learn from the public as well. Understanding economic mobility is a challenging endeavor – one that the center is dedicated to.