The chance to move from poverty to wealth defines the American dream. Today's reality?
7% Chance a Kansas City child will move from bottom fifth of income to top fifth, in his or her lifetime.
13th Kansas City's ranking on list of most income-segregated cities in America
51% Number of Kansas City children living in single-parent homes
Allison Gibbons has lived a lifetime of problems.
A difficult childhood in a broken home. An eating disorder, drug abuse, depression, alcohol — “obviously I was self-medicating,” she says.
She is the mother of a young son whose father is in jail.
Today she works for a better life, with dreams of becoming a nurse.
“I know it’s going to be a struggle,” she says.
It’s a strain Mary Jo Vernon understands.
Thirty years ago she was a single mother with three small children and three jobs, hoping others in the grocery store didn’t notice her food stamps.
“I was trying to keep my nostrils above the waterline,” Vernon recalls.
Education, hard work and public support marked the road back. Today, Vernon earns a six-figure salary as Platte County’s health director — a married, doting grandmother with grown, thriving children.
Mary Jo Vernon embodies the American dream, the deeply held belief that anyone who works hard and follows the rules can succeed.
Yet studies show that dream has been fading for decades.
Now experts believe meaningful mobility may be dangerously close to disappearing entirely. A wealth gap and stagnant growth have made success increasingly an accident of birth — more like feudal Europe than can-do America.
Social scientists are scrambling to learn why. And they’re advancing theories: financially divided cities, missing fathers, crumbling social institutions, broken politics. Those long-standing problems now take on a heightened urgency.
It’s clear the old questions and answers have failed, at least in part. Even Vernon’s success shows how far apart the rungs on America’s ladder to success are spaced.
“It feels some days like the American dream is slipping away,” she said.
Better than our parents?
Economists, politicians and academics have spent years examining the growing wealth gap among the rich, the middle class and the poor in America. They found that real income for all but the highest earners has barely grown for three generations.
Less noticed is the ongoing slump in social mobility, the ability to transcend one’s circumstances and achieve greater success.
Americans see rags-to-riches opportunity as their birthright.
“Upward mobility from the bottom is the crux of the American promise,” former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, a Republican, said just a few years ago.
Yet studies repeatedly suggest Americans face steeper odds of escaping poverty than their counterparts in other modern economies. Some studies show children in France, Japan and even Pakistan stand a better chance than U.S. children to rise above their parents.
“There are an awful lot of people who are struggling, who will never get out of poverty,” says Stephanie Kelton, an economist at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“It’s roughly three times harder to get from the bottom into the middle, or from the middle into the top, in the U.S. as it is in a place like Japan or some of the Nordic countries.”
Americans, President Barack Obama said last December, think “their kids won’t be better off than they were. … This is the defining challenge of our time.”
He and others have offered some responses: a higher minimum wage, more job training and education, a broader social safety net.
Experts worry that such efforts stumble because policymakers rely on outdated assumptions and ineffective repairs.
What if stable, two-parent families and financially integrated neighborhoods are more important for mobility than nutrition programs or job training? How might communities of faith and fellowship bind neighborhoods closer together?
Fully answering those questions will prove enormously difficult, researchers caution.
“It will be 10 years or more before we have anything close to a consensus” on reasons and remedies for social immobility, said Lane Kenworthy, a sociology and political science professor at the University of Arizona.
Yet finding the answers is critical.
“Americans can tolerate a lot of inequality compared with people of other nations,” write researchers Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, “but only if everyone has a chance at upward mobility.”
Patrick Sharkey, a sociology professor at New York University, agrees: “This realization that the United States … is unique in how low its level of mobility is, that’s kind of eye-opening to a lot of people.”
Rich streets, poor streets
Mary Jo Vernon
Mary Jo Vernon’s journey from poverty to success began early. She grew up in a home built by her father, helping to care for a sister with Down syndrome.
“My goals were pretty small,” she recalls.
Her challenges grew dramatically as an adult when her marriage fell apart.
“Just trying to keep the lights on and water running and the groceries coming in was all I could do,” she said.
Vernon and her children might have fallen into a poverty trap too deep to escape. It’s a desperation all too familiar to Bianca Hunter, a single mother raised in a single-parent home.
“It’s almost impossible. It really is,” she said. “That’s why people are so bitter and angry and why kids don’t get the attention from their parents that they need.”
A Kansas City area child has just a 7 percent chance of moving from the bottom fifth of earners to the top fifth, according to a landmark 2013 study by the Harvard University Equality of Opportunity Project.
The national average — 8 percent — is less than half that of Denmark.
A child born in the bottom fifth of incomes in Memphis has just a 2.8 percent chance of reaching the top fifth, the worst urban performance in the nation. By contrast, a similar child in San Jose, Calif., has a 12.9 percent chance of achieving the top rank of earners.
“The U.S. is better described as a collection of societies, some of which are ‘lands of opportunity’ with high rates of mobility across generations,” the Harvard researchers write, “and others in which few children escape poverty.”
One explanation for that pattern is a history of racial segregation. Places with mobility problems, like Kansas City, often have a history of dividing the races.
Researchers increasingly believe economic segregation — the tendency of wealthy people to live with others equally wealthy, or for the poor to live with other poor — better explains why social mobility stalls.
“There are some places where growing up poor has less of an impact on kids,” Sharkey says. “They don’t live apart from the rich.”
A 2013 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts concluded that “the most economically segregated U.S. metro areas — those where the very rich and the very poor live far from each other — are also the least economically mobile, and vice versa.”
A wider range of incomes within a closely knit neighborhood, some researchers believe, builds the aspirations among the poorer children. At the same time, it helps convince higher earners to offer neighbors a hand up with better schools, health care and other services.
Vernon thinks her diverse neighborhood played a role in her own escape.
“Exposure to range of incomes and wealth gives children a broad perspective on life,” she says.
For decades, by contrast, Kansas City’s poor and wealthy spread away from each other in isolated pockets, driven by developers, cheap land and a car culture.
“Poverty is highly concentrated in the core of the Kansas City region,” the Brookings Institution concluded after the 2000 census.
A 2012 study said Kansas City’s “residential income segregation index” — a measure of the isolation of its poor — was higher than St. Louis, Boston, Chicago and the national average. It’s the 13th biggest residential income gap among the country’s 30 largest metro areas.
Some of that is changing.
A few local communities have relatively strong mixes of income levels. Between 2005 and 2009, figures show, residents in one part of Grandview had the most equal incomes in the nation. Olathe has a wide range of incomes in similar neighborhoods.
Both communities are likely to foster mobility better than places with more segregated incomes. Salt Lake City’s incomes, for example, are also among the most equal in America, and that area is near the top of most economically mobile cities in America.
Atlanta, by contrast, is highly unequal — and immobile.
One answer to social immobility in the Kansas City region, then, may be to use zoning, incentives and regulations to develop neighborhoods with fully mixed incomes.
Some wealthier Kansas Citians may be drawn to such an environment.
Deanne Ricke of Leawood is raising two teenage sons, children who have enjoyed the amenities a suburban upbringing implies. She has worked hard to carve out a successful career as a communications and marketing specialist and author.
She wants her children to do better than she has, but through health and fulfillment, not necessarily material success.
“Sometimes I wonder if I didn’t do (my children) a disservice by bringing them up in a wealthier neighborhood,” she says.
“Because — we call it the bubble. The Johnson County bubble, where everybody is affluent that they know, and it just feels like it’s easy and it’s natural.
“It isn’t easy and it isn’t natural, and that’s what I’ve tried to impart to them.”
The schoolhouse door
Mary Jo Vernon’s recovery began when she returned to school — while raising three children.
“They couldn’t have Nikes,” she says. “They couldn’t have Jordache.”
But the quartet would often study together in the evenings, giving the young students an early lesson in focus and discipline, key skills learned in the home and at school.
Kansas City’s struggles with providing K-12 public education are well known. Decades of underperforming public schools provide at least a partial explanation for lower social and economic mobility in the community.
“One thing we know matters is schools,” said Kenworthy, the social scientist. Good schools “do help equalize opportunity.”
In 2012, the 34-nation Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found that the U.S. was one of just three member countries spending less on disadvantaged students, on average, than wealthier students.
“The most able teachers rarely work in disadvantaged schools in the United States, the opposite of what occurs in countries with high-performing education systems,” the OECD declared.
Stumbles in K-12 education hurt social mobility, some researchers believe, because they put college out of reach.
“A college degree can be a ticket out of poverty,” the Brookings Institution recently concluded. Vernon’s experience helps prove the point.
The claim is controversial.
Almost everyone agrees a man or woman with a college degree typically earns more than someone with only a high school diploma. But they say many disadvantaged students won’t finish college because they’re poorly prepared by public schools.
Families and parents
In 2012, according to data compiled by Kids Count, 51 percent of all children in Kansas City lived in households like the one Mary Jo Vernon headed — just one parent.
The national average is 35 percent.
Researchers increasingly believe stable, two-parent families are critical for social mobility.
“Having just one parent makes it harder,” says Kenworthy.
The Harvard research team is blunt. “The strongest predictors of upward mobility are measures of family structure, such as the fraction of single parents in the area,” it writes.
Most often, those single-parent families are run by a woman.
Conservatives say the breakdown of the traditional family explains much of the poverty trap, providing a rationale for making it harder to divorce and easier to deny benefits to single parents.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has organized seminars on the topic and urged policies and legislation promoting two-parent families. Conservatives have suggested caps on benefits for single mothers or grants for low-income families with two parents.
Others say single-parent homes compare poorly because a second income is missing.
“You cannot do well in school if you’re hungry,” says Alice Lieberman, a researcher and professor at the University of Kansas. “You cannot work and function adequately if you’re hungry.”
Some researchers say the number of adults in a home matters less than stability and positive role models. Children with bickering parents, for example, may be more harmful to mobility than conflict-free single-parent households.
Shauna Love of Kansas City, 29, grew up in a home without a father. She now raises two children without a spouse.
“You definitely need two parents to raise a child,” she says. “It is so much harder by yourself.”
Asked to explain her triumph over poverty, Mary Jo Vernon mentions education and work.
Then: “My faith. My groundedness in a power greater than myself.”
Social mobility researchers aren’t completely sure why, but there is evidence that moving up the economic ladder comes easier in communities organized around faith — churches, synagogues, other gathering places for worship.
Salt Lake City, a community largely organized around the Mormon religion, is highly mobile.
Yet the influence of a church on social mobility is complicated.
Churches remain important institutions in many poor neighborhoods, for example. Yet mobility is a problem because of other factors — education, family structure and the like.
Some communities considered more secular are still socially mobile. Boston and San Francisco are in the top 10 of socially mobile cities, Harvard says, but a Gallup poll puts both near the bottom of the list of the nation’s most religious cities.
That suggests the influence of a church may be part of a broader picture, experts say. The goal is a strong community. Active engagement in civic life, strong social structures in neighborhoods, an ethic of shared sacrifice and ambition all contribute to socially mobile populations.
Writes Brad Wilcox for the conservative American Enterprise Institute: “Giving poor kids a shot at the American dream may depend on the nation’s capacity to revive communitarian virtues and institutions” — churches, schools, neighborhoods.
Maintaining strong community structures grows more difficult as a city or region diversifies. Some in Salt Lake City fear poverty and social dysfunction are on the rise, threatening the city’s ability to remain near the top of the list of socially mobile cities.
Mary Jo Vernon had a strong faith, help from sympathetic friends and neighbors, a strong work ethic and a little luck.
She also had help from the the community and government.
“I applied for food stamps, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, I got rental assistance,” she said. “Medicaid. I got a Pell grant to go to school.”
While social scientists agree on what helps mobility — economically integrated neighborhoods, stable families, good schools — they say fully fixing the problem will require a broader approach than tackling any one concern.
“What does it mean to be poor in Kansas City?” asked NYU’s Sharkey.
“Does it mean you’re growing up in a place with a higher level of violence where kids are under constant stress? Does it mean you’re exposed to higher levels of air pollution, and unclean water, and toxins in the soil?
“These are questions that are fundamental to ask. “It’s not just ‘Are there people with low income there?’ It’s ‘How does that poverty affect all the aspects of that family’s life?’”
Indeed, those studying social mobility — and those fighting to improve it — worry the emphasis on family, neighborhoods and community may mean less support for other traditional tools: nutrition programs, for example, or rigorous job training and job creation.
“There are three reliable ways to help or ‘lift’ the bottom,” writes economist Jared Bernstein. “Subsidies that increase the poor’s economic security today, investment in their future productivity and targeted job opportunities at decent wages.”
It involves more than just cash benefits. Recipients, some believe, must be convinced government programs can help.
“I felt like more than dirt,” Vernon recalled. “But you know what? When people use it for what it’s designed for, it’s a very good tool.”
At the same time, government aid can be a trap — a snare acknowledged by some who get benefits today.
Bianca Hunter is studying to be a radiologist. To pursue her education — and feed her son — Hunter relies partly on government assistance, just as her mother did.
Generational dependence on government aid is a common feature of uniformly poor neighborhoods, researchers say, because information on available support programs travels quickly from parent to child and from neighbor to neighbor. Eventually it becomes a multigenerational habit.
“You have people who settle,” says Hunter. “I don’t want to settle. I don’t want to depend on the government.”
Politics of mobility
All of this leaves policymakers in a tough spot.
What works in one city might not work in another.
Addressing any one shortfall might not change the others.
Liberals and conservatives increasingly say social mobility should top the country’s to-do list.
Yet researchers deeply doubt the political class has the patience or imagination to carry out better ideas.
“All of the areas that you talk about that might predict mobility — neighborhoods, schools, health care, infrastructure — we could shore some of those things up,” KU’s Lieberman says.
“But we do not have the political will and wealthy people do not have the desire.”
Still, people who have battled the poverty trap — Shauna Love, Mary Jo Vernon, Allison Gibbons, Bianca Hunter — show that while the American dream may be in trouble, American dreamers remain.
“It takes a village to raise a child,” Love said. “But remember: It’s your village. You’re controlling the village.
“You can do anything you set your mind to.”
To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.