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Numbers Put the Lie to Our National Narrative

Growing economic stratification makes America’s promise of opportunity for all ring increasingly hollow.

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A couple walks past empty, boarded-up buildings in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati, Ohio. (AP/Al Behrman)
A couple walks past empty, boarded-up buildings in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati, Ohio. (AP/Al Behrman)

While notions of impermeable social and economic stratification flaunt America’s egalitarian self-identity, our nation’s populace is becoming increasingly locked into rigid classes that frame life options from cradle to grave.  As much as we are loath to admit it, the best predicate for a child’s eventual success is something that child has no ability to control: their parents.

Such an unsettling conclusion follows from a series of recent studies that suggest that a child born into a family with parents who have the ability to comfortably house, educate, and provide for them have an advantage they rarely lose for the rest of their lives.

The most recent of these studies, “The Divided City: And the Shape of the New Metropolis,” makes a convincing, if disturbing, class stratification in U.S. cities forms “a patchwork of concentrated advantage and concentrated disadvantage that cuts across center city and suburb alike.” Released earlier this week at the CityLab Conference—which brought some 300-plus mayors and urban planning experts to Los Angeles to discuss how city leaders can make cities livable—the study tracked where professional workers, service industry worker, and blue-collar workers live across the urban landscape of 12 large U.S. metro areas: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, and Detroit.

According to the reports’ authors—Richard Florida, Zara Matheson, Patrick Alder, and Taylor Brydges of the Martin Prosperity Institute, or MPI, at the University of Toronto—their study mapped where people lived by occupation in the selected urban areas. They discovered “a clear and unmistakable pattern of geographic class division within and across all twelve metros and their central cities.”

This study shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to those who have been keeping up with the scholarly literature on what’s happening in the nation’s city centers. In fact, Richard Florida’s involvement in this study is notable because it expands his nearly decade old theories about how “the rise of the creative class” of affluent, highly educated, and well-heeled professionals would lead the way toward gentrification in decaying urban centers.

This is notably true in Washington, D.C., where I live and experience the stark demarcation of smart, wealthy people clustered in the northwestern quadrant of the city, apart from the more impoverished folk in the far southwest corner. As Emily Badger of The Washington Post’s Wonkblog put it, reporting on the MPI study:

About three-quarters of the region’s “creative class” lives in a census tract where their neighbors are primarily creative-class workers, too. That means your lawyers, doctors, journalists and lobbyists live together in parts of town far from the people who pour their coffee.

This also means that their evolving preferences — to live downtown, or close to the red line [Metro stops], or around Rock Creek Park — shape the city for everyone else.

But such class stratification goes beyond a predilection for a Starbucks on every corner or easy-access to mass transportation. In some cases, it’s a question of life and death.

For example, another recent study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Commission to Build a Healthier America found that “babies born just a few miles apart have dramatic differences in life expectancy.” The commission illustrated its report with a series of colorful graphs and charts that point out how, for example, a baby born in the Treme community of New Orleans can expect to live 55 years compared to a baby born at the same time in the nearby Naverre suburb can expect to live 80 years.

Geographic disparities such as these have garnered research and media attention, prompting some to even give the phenomenon the gruesome moniker “death by Zip Code.” Speaking earlier this year at the Harvard School of Public Health about the links between segregation and poor health, Melody Goodman told a rapt audience, “Your zip code is a better predictor of your health than your genetic code.”

The same trend holds for educational opportunities and outcomes. As I have noted in this space before, where students attend elementary and high school can be a marker of whether they will attend college or, if they do attend, whether it’s a highly regarded one or not.

All this assembled research points to a disturbing trend and suggests that forces well beyond the ability of an individual’s life are at play in shaping his or her future.  This isn’t a cheery notion because it flies in the face of what we want to think is our national narrative. Never mind the folly of such stories, we believe them because we want to believe that all born here have equal opportunity to succeed.

Indeed, Americans persist in believing that we are a nation of strivers, Horatio Algers-types who bootstrap our way from poverty to affluence with hard work, pluck, and only a dollop of good fortune. But an avalanche of evidence suggests otherwise and demands we heed its cursed facts if we truly want to make our self-image a reality.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)