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We need to work together as a community to create the door on which opportunity knocks.
“Income inequality” is one of the political buzz-phrases of the moment, and we’re bound to hear a lot more about it as the march to 2016 intensifies. Very few people dispute that it’s a growing problem in the U.S.—and in our own city. But if and how to do anything about it is a source of ongoing controversy.
Tennessee has recently been awarded the dubious distinction of making the list of “Top Ten Dumbest States.” And Chattanooga, it was recently reported, continues to lag behind other American cities in average wages. Both of these factors (education and income) have a major impact on “social mobility,” the ability to lift oneself from poverty to a better life.
On May 30, the Brookings Institute published an online article by Richard Reeves, Economic Fellow and Policy Director for the Center on Children and Families, based on his paper, “Planning the American Dream: The Case for an Office of Opportunity.” In it, Reeves presented a compelling argument that federal, state and local governments should consider creating a department or office charged with promoting social mobility.
Reeves lists three commitments that he believes need to be undertaken at all these levels:
• Institutionalize the Commitment to Mobility with an Office of Opportunity. “Improving social mobility rates is a long-term task, spanning many administrations and congresses. Giving mobility an institutional home—preferably in the form of an apolitical, bipartisan Office of Opportunity—should help maintain a commitment to the mobility cause over the longer term.”
• Select An Official Social Mobility Measure. “There are countless ways to assess rates of mobility,” says Reeves. “I propose a single, simple measure: the proportion of people moving from the bottom quintile of the income distribution as children, to one of the top two quintiles as an adult. This is a relative, income-based intergenerational measure which gets quite close, I think, to the moral intuition lying behind the political and public desire for greater social mobility: that people born on the bottom rung of the ladder should have a decent chance of getting towards the top. Right now, according to most analyses, that number is around 13 percent (while in a world of perfect mobility it would be 40 percent).” In other words, a way to gauge the so-called “level playing field.”
• Create a “Dashboard” of Leading Indicators of Mobility. “Closing the gap in school readiness at age 5 or narrowing the extraordinary differences by parents’ income in the chances of getting to a selective college will almost automatically improve the chances of escaping from the bottom rung of the income ladder,” says Reeves. He cites other factors that could be used, such as high school graduation rates and, later, “middle class by middle age.”
In Mayor Andy Berke’s proposed budget, both the “Baby College” concept and the program to address the problem of the digital divide can directly impact the lack of social mobility in Chattanooga.
We urge the mayor, however, to give serious consideration to the idea of an Office of Opportunity, as described by Reeves. A mind, as the old public service announcement used to say, is a terrible thing to waste.
And there are far too many valuable minds going to waste in our community.