Support Intelligent, In-Depth, Trustworthy Journalism.
Is geographic mobility the key to moving up the economic ladder? Economists are finding that the odds no longer favor American kids in doing better than their parents, but some hope that uprooting their families and moving to safer streets with better schools will guarantee a brighter economic future. Economics correspondent Paul Solman explores the link between location and inequality.
But first: Our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, is continuing to chronicle some of the problems with inequality across the country.
Tonight, he looks at the possibility of moving up the economic ladder by moving out to other communities.
It's part of his weekly series, Making Sense.
I want better for my family.
Kristen Hopper expressing the economic motto of America even before the states united.
So, you want your kids to do better than you have done?
A hundred percent.
The 35-year-old mother of four has gone the extra miles to make that happen. With help from the Interfaith Council for Action, a housing nonprofit, she's uprooted her family from hardscrabble Yonkers, New York, where she herself grew up, and has in effect emigrated a mere 20 miles north, but in some respects a world away, to Ossining, New York.
Ossining may be home to Sing Sing Prison, where criminals are still sent up the river from New York City, but this is suburbia, a place with far better prospects for 2-year-old twins Robert and Juliet (ph), 10-year-old Josie, 14-year-old Gio.
The last place that I lived, it wasn't safe for my kids to walk around in. There was a shoot-out. They have all kinds of gangs. I know that, if I stayed there, my kids would be in the streets too.
But instead of the streets, Gio is in after-school clubs, pre-law, pre-business and The Ossining High School Current.
I want to become a lawyer. And I'm trying to work on that.
So that you can do better economically?
How much better is it for you and for the kids…
Oh my God.
… to be living…
Hopper's fiance, Robert Brunner.
The safety is 1,000 times different than it is in a hood area. And to fit in, in those places, you have to be rough and tough, and it's a totally different child. It changes the child.
As it changed Brunner, who did and dealt drugs, like the hallucinogen PCP, angel dust.
It's embalming fluid and jet propellant. That's the mix of it. I used to sell it. I used to do all that crap. Craziness.
The craziness climaxed when he crashed his car while high, was in a coma for 18 months.
My father — like, when the doctor say, you know, your son has no brain activity, he's — he won't even be able to function, so then they pull the plug on me. They basically pull it out to see if you can breath on your own. And then, if you do, you're good. And if you don't, you're done.
Do you think that a kid as smart as Gio is, would he have been vulnerable to taking angel dust?
I think, if the crowd is doing it, I think he would do it. Peer pressure isn't easy, you know?
And thus the move upriver, different peers, different pressures. Just ask Gio and Josie.
The people down in Yonkers, they are very mean, in a way.
Yes. They, like, get angry a lot and they like to pick on kids, and I didn't really enjoy that.
And, in Ossining, there's like kids who are like so nice to you. When it was my first day, the kids were asking me like, do you want to play and stuff? It's just not like Yonkers at all.
But it could be that the people in Yonkers are as mean as they are, to use your word, because they don't see much of a future for themselves there.
Where people here do see a future for themselves.
Which is their mom's whole point.
I want to show them that in order to be able to live well, and not live paycheck to paycheck, not have to be on social services, not that it's a bad thing — and I'm grateful for all the help that I have, but I definitely want them to do better than me.
Now, some might say that shouldn't be hard in this case, but here's the stark fact that prompted our trip to Westchester: The odds no longer favor American kids doing better than their parents.
It's basically a coin flip at this point.
Yes, it's just a remarkable decline in our country in terms of the fraction of our kids earning more than their parents.
Economists Raj Chetty and Nat Hendren study economic inequality, growing in America for decades, as you have so often heard. But inequality itself might not be so bad if we all had a fair shot at the platinum ring.
The fraction of kids earning more than their parents has fallen from above 90 percent four decades ago to about 50 percent today.
And so people who are worried about this for their kids are right to worry.
Absolutely. It used to be that everybody could count on this, that your kids were going to grow up to earn more than you. And, today, it's not just something that's a feature of the American economy.
So what can a poor family with an American dream do to increase the odds of the kids moving up? Move out.
We see that in places where kids of different economic backgrounds are mixing in the same environment, those tend to be places where kids from low-income backgrounds rise up further in the income distribution.
Kind of like Ossining, where a plaque commemorates Alexis de Tocqueville's visit almost 200 years ago. He wrote: "When inequality is the general rule in society, the greatest inequalities attract no attention."
You have some really wealthy people. You have some people in poverty. It's kind of balanced.
And that helps your kids?
Yes, I want them to understand that there is hard life, that there's good life.
So they can see the good life, and they see it's attainable you mean?
Yes. Of course.
Of course, because the reverse is also true.
Places that are more segregated by race or by income tend to have lower levels of upward mobility.
Consider inner-city Baltimore, which we visited two years ago, when violence erupted following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. According to these young ministers-in-training, the near-absence of upward mobility fueled the protesters' anger.
People aren't feeling like they can succeed in life or get above.
It's like we're all living in this dump or this war zone.
Living in the dilapidated areas which they live in, they feel like they're not loved. They feel like they're not cared for.
If you think about what's gone on in Baltimore, it's a place of tremendous concentrated poverty.
Chetty and Hendren have looked closely at Baltimore, reanalyzing data from a mid-1990s experiment in which the federal government gave poor families housing vouchers to move to better neighborhoods. Twenty years later:
The kids who moved at young ages are dramatically better as adults. They're earning 30 percent more. They're 27 percent more likely to go to college, something like 30 percent less likely to have a teenage pregnancy, relative to the kids who stayed in the high-poverty public housing projects.
And so there's clear scientific evidence that you can dramatically change kids' outcomes just based on where they grow up.
What does it say on your arm?
"Only the strong survive," in Chinese.
But back in Yonkers, 17-year-old Destiny Turturiello, a family friend of Kristen Hopper's from the old neighborhood, can't get out. A minor with no legal guardian, she's even having trouble getting back into school, having dropped out when kids bullied her for doing her homework during lunch. She used to give as good as she got.
If you look at me, just like how you're looking at me now…
… I might just fight you two years ago.
You would fight me? What do you mean?
I would just be like, what are you staring at? Is there a problem? And then I would have hit you.
And then I would have went about my day, because I feel like I just took my anger out on you.
She's learned to manage her anger, but she's still in Yonkers, which has deep pockets of poverty not far from upscale, affluent areas.
What am I doing with my life? I'm not doing anything productive. What am I going to be later on in life? Am I going to be something? If I could change on living in Yonkers, I would do it 100 percent.
But Turturiello, like millions of other Americans, can't afford to move to a better community. Kristen Hopper only managed with help from benefactors. But finances weren't the only factor.
It was hard for me to disconnect from friends. Like, what am I going to do if I have nobody you know? And when I actually did it, many people were shocked.
Shocked, she says, and resentful.
Is the resentment similar to the resentment that so many Americans feel towards people who are just doing much better that they're doing in this economy?
I have felt that resentment hard.
The status distinction.
Yes. I did. I did.
Location, location, location, an old saw in real estate, but one with poignant new pertinence in today's increasingly immobile economy.
For the PBS NewsHour, this is economics correspondent Paul Solman, reporting from Westchester, New York.
Watch the Full Episode
Paul Solman has been a business, economics and occasional art correspondent for the PBS NewsHour since 1985.
Support Provided By:
Support PBS NewsHour:
Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.