Progressive Voice: The Importance of Economic Mobility

Mary RouleauProgressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or

By Mary Rouleau

We have seen mounting evidence and substantial reporting about the growing income and wealth (net worth) gaps nationally. These gaps have become a key theme in this year’s Presidential election. They have also been picked up more and more in local coverage.

Less reported — and perhaps less understood – are the opportunities for economic mobility in our society and the factors that influence such mobility. Economic mobility measures movement up or down the income ladder throughout a person’s life (intragenerational mobility) or relative to their parents (intergenerational mobility).

Income inequality and the wealth gap have both grown. The opportunities for intragenerational and intergenerational mobility have not improved – which may be one of the reasons for growing income and wealth gaps. While upper incomes grow, people with lower incomes find themselves stuck on the same rung of the economic ladder.

To reverse the income and wealth gaps, we will need to generate opportunities for economic mobility.

What can be done on the local level to create and sustain economic mobility?

It starts with housing, which is the primary portal to education, jobs, and transit — or, in other words, to opportunity.

The Urban Institute conducted a recent review of how housing policy has an impact on economic mobility.

The review noted that “housing policy can play an important role in improving the economic well-being of low income households….” Yet, “housing policy can also impede progress when families do not have access to affordable, safe and stable housing and when economic and racial segregation leave some communities with reduced financial, social and human capital….”

At its core, stable affordable housing enables children to have better cognitive development and improved learning. This success, in turn, reduces parents’ stress, allows families to maintain relationships, and helps build social connections. Through these relationships and connections, it is easier to identify and access resources for training, education and enrichment.

By contrast, when policies trap people in unstable housing, poor schools, few jobs, and a lack of community assets and social institutions we see individuals being unable to ascend the next rung of the economic ladder. This serves to “perpetuate the cycle of poverty for the next generation.”

The type of poverty and opportunity gaps that are generally the focus of study are found in large areas of concentrated poverty in cities and rural areas. Unstable housing, poor schools, few jobs and a lack of assets doesn’t sound like Arlington.

Fortunately, Arlington ranks among the best places in the country in helping children up the income ladder according to the recent and high profile “Chetty” index that measures intergenerational income mobility.

This should not be a surprise. For example, Arlington already has in place the types of local government-level programs that the authors of the Review identify as “housing levers” to promote economic mobility.

Among the examples of successful policies in Arlington is the County’s public-private approach to providing affordable housing and the decisions to create decent and stable housing near transit. Such transit-oriented locations make it easier to access schools, jobs, community assets, and institutional resources.

In addition to providing decent and affordable housing, what can a community do to encourage economic mobility?

Here are some actions that Arlington should continue to emphasize:

  1. Provide good schools, including needed capacity for after-school academic support;
  1. Gather longitudinal data (educational and occupational) needed to better assess economic mobility;
  1. Provide accessible and affordable job skill and language support services;
  1. Provide a public transit system that gets lower wage workers to hospitality, entertainment and retail areas;
  1. Support homeownership where possible and sustainable – to promote economic mobility and help narrow the wealth gap;
  1. Enforce fair housing laws; and
  1. Support non-profit providers of educational and employment-related services.

Finally, if we really want to get serious about promoting economic mobility and lessening the wealth gap, the best course would be to revise federal tax subsidy policies that funnel two-thirds of homeownership and retirement tax subsidies to the top income quartile.

Mary Rouleau is a 25-year resident of Arlington. She is the Executive Director of The Alliance for Housing Solutions. This column reflects her personal views.

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