Your ZIP Code May Be Dragging You Down

Communities play a huge role in upward mobility, which is why the U.S. has seen only modest improvement over 40 years.

National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
June 24, 2014, 2 a.m.

Cell phones, cable tele­vi­sion, and so­cial me­dia have done pre­cious little to im­prove up­ward mo­bil­ity in the United States over the last two gen­er­a­tions. The reas­on? Some re­gions of the coun­try are thriv­ing while oth­ers are sink­ing. Where you live will tell you wheth­er you’re one of the haves or the have-nots.

“Suc­cess is driv­en by hard work and per­sever­ance, but this is a more nu­anced pic­ture. An­oth­er huge factor is the com­munity,” says Op­por­tun­ity Na­tion Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or Mark Ed­wards. “If the ZIP code you’re in has a low op­por­tun­ity score, the deck is stacked against you.

First, the good news. Ac­cess to edu­ca­tion, par­tic­u­larly preschool, has im­proved tre­mend­ously since 1970, ac­cord­ing to a new study from the so­cial-sci­ence group Meas­ure for Amer­ica and Op­por­tun­ity Na­tion. But there is also bad news. Those gains have been dragged down by the coun­try’s poor eco­nom­ic per­form­ance, par­tic­u­larly from 2000 to 2010.

Over­all, the re­search­ers give the coun­try a small gain of 6 points over 40 years on a 100-point meas­ure of eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­ity. In 1970, the “op­por­tun­ity score” was 44.8. In 2010, it was 50.8.

The “op­por­tun­ity in­dex” de­veloped by these re­search­ers takes in­to ac­count com­munity factors bey­ond eco­nom­ics that also hinder or pro­mote so­cial mo­bil­ity. It tracks edu­ca­tion­al and civic life stat­ist­ics such as preschool en­roll­ments, crime rates, and the num­ber of “dis­con­nec­ted youth” who aren’t in school and don’t have jobs, and adds them to eco­nom­ic factors such as un­em­ploy­ment and poverty rates.

We have re­covered a bit since 2010. The re­search­ers now give the coun­try an op­por­tun­ity score of 53.9 us­ing some ad­di­tion­al data points (such as ac­cess to gro­cery stores or WiFi).

Even tak­ing in­to ac­count a bounce back from the woes of 2010, the new re­port shows a coun­try that was much stronger eco­nom­ic­ally in 1970 than it is now, even though at that time most people could not ima­gine a com­puter in their home, let alone their hand. The eco­nom­ic losses have been bal­anced by over­all im­prove­ments in com­munit­ies and edu­ca­tion over that same time.

But the na­tion­al pic­ture masks im­port­ant geo­graph­ic dif­fer­ences. Loc­a­tion really mat­ters when it comes to wheth­er people have any hope of climb­ing the eco­nom­ic lad­der. Mis­sis­sippi’s Har­ris­on County (which houses Biloxi) has an op­por­tun­ity score of 35.7, 10 points lower than the state score. New York City is at 76.5, 14 points above the New York state score and 23 points above the na­tion­al score.

From a his­tor­ic­al per­spect­ive, Michigan and Nevada are both in worse shape now than they were in 1970. Michigan is only slightly worse off, with a score of 46.2; it was 46.4 in 1970. Nevada’s op­por­tun­ity meas­ure, which stood at 45.4 in 1970, took a nose dive between 2000 and 2010, drop­ping more than 10 points to 35.1. All oth­er states have shown mod­est im­prove­ment. Vir­gin­ia was the “most im­proved” state, mov­ing from a 44.7 in 1970 to a 59.6, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

With its yearly in­dex and the most re­cent his­tor­ic­al re­port, the re­search­ers are try­ing to ex­pand the eco­nom­ic un­der­stand­ing of the United States bey­ond simple em­ploy­ment stat­ist­ics. “If you have a job but it’s not pay­ing a liv­ing wage, that doesn’t help. If you have a job but you can’t get healthy food, that doesn’t help,” Ed­wards says. “These factors play a power­ful role.”

These ad­ded factors of­fer col­or and con­text to some­times bland eco­nom­ic fig­ures, but they can also com­plic­ate the pic­ture in ways that can be tough to ex­plain. For ex­ample, preschool en­roll­ment has skyrock­eted since 1970, which is the main reas­on the re­port’s edu­ca­tion score shows such a dra­mat­ic rise over time. Eco­nom­ists and edu­cat­ors gen­er­ally view preschool as one of the best ways to en­sure that dis­ad­vant­aged chil­dren gradu­ate from high school and (in the­ory) con­trib­ute to the eco­nomy. Yet the top-line eco­nom­ic fig­ures in the his­tor­ic­al re­port don’t re­flect eco­nom­ic im­prove­ment. The eco­nom­ic score ac­tu­ally dropped from 62.4 to 48.5 over 40 years.

That doesn’t mean preschool hasn’t helped, but you need more con­text (out­side of the re­port’s scope) to un­der­stand how early edu­ca­tion is im­pact­ing the eco­nomy. The short an­swer is that it may be too soon to tell. In 1970, there was nowhere to go but up with preschool. Gov­ern­ment-fun­ded Head Start had been cre­ated just five years earli­er, and only about 10 per­cent of 3- and 4-year olds at­ten­ded some form of preschool, most of it private. Now, 48 per­cent of preschool-aged chil­dren are in a pre­kinder­garten pro­gram. What’s more, 28 per­cent of kids are in preschool pro­grams that re­ceive gov­ern­ment fund­ing, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tion­al In­sti­tute for Early Edu­ca­tion Re­search.

Asked about the lack of eco­nom­ic im­prove­ment des­pite these edu­ca­tion­al gains, Ed­wards sug­gest that em­ploy­ers have evolved, too. In the past 40 years, they have moved bey­ond hir­ing mere high school gradu­ates. “The kinds of jobs avail­able today are a dif­fer­ent kind of skill set,” he says. That ex­plains why un­em­ploy­ment rates are well above where they were in 1970. Back then, the an­nu­al un­em­ploy­ment rate was 4.9 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to BLS. In 2013, it was 7.5 per­cent.

It’s not hard to find ex­amples of how the job mar­kets have evolved. Jobs in the gar­ment in­dustry, which don’t re­quire much train­ing, plunged from al­most 1 mil­lion in 1990 to about 161,000 in 2010. The ap­par­el work­force is now one-tenth of its pre­vi­ous size, ac­cord­ing to the Bur­eau of Labor Stat­ist­ics. By con­trast, busi­ness and tech­nic­al jobs that re­quire spe­cial­ized train­ing (i.e., ac­count­ing, com­puter ser­vices, design, con­sult­ing) al­most doubled in the same 20 years, from 4.5 mil­lion to 7.4 mil­lion.

The op­por­tun­ity data, in the­ory, will help poli­cy­makers fig­ure out ways to de­crease the high school dro­pout rate in areas where it is par­tic­u­larly high, which in turn should re­duce crime. But if the job avail­ab­il­ity for high school gradu­ates is lim­ited to fast-food or jan­it­ori­al work, what good does it do? That’s where the busi­ness com­munity needs to fig­ure out how to give young people the spe­cif­ic skills they need so they can hire them. Ed­wards says loc­al em­ploy­ers should have a stronger voice in the com­munity when it comes to edu­cat­ing young people.

Op­por­tun­ity Na­tion is act­ively lob­by­ing Con­gress to pass a new job-train­ing bill that will ex­pand fed­er­al youth job pro­grams from ages 21 to 24, a high pri­or­ity for or­gan­iz­a­tions that try to keep the num­ber of dis­con­nec­ted youth re­l­at­ively low. Un­der the le­gis­la­tion, they won’t have to turn a cli­ent away as soon as he or she can buy al­co­hol.

The bill also would in­crease em­ploy­er rep­res­ent­a­tion slots on loc­al “work­force in­vest­ment boards” that co­ordin­ate school, train­ing, and em­ploy­ment activ­it­ies. The meas­ure is at the end of a long road of ne­go­ti­ations between the House and the Sen­ate. It will likely pass the Sen­ate this week. And if it is not amended, it will be passed shortly there­after by the House.

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