OEDEL: Accumulative disadvantage

September 22, 2013 

Congratulations to Macon-Bibb’s newly elected leaders, although five positions won’t be decided until the runoff on Oct. 15, they’ll have plenty to do just getting the new government operational. A harder challenge, though, will be to imagine what local government might do about endemic poverty that repeats generationally.

That challenge was reflected, if somewhat fuzzily, in The Telegraph’s creative “Macon in the Mirror” project with the Center for Collaborative Journalism.

One part of that project focused on Pio Nono Avenue. If Pio Nono is our community’s “backbone,” as reporter Joe Kovac Jr. put it, emblematic of essential local strengths, we’re in trouble.

Pio Nono’s many lanes blast gun-like through one poor neighborhood after another. Few vestiges of its former vitality remain. Pio Nono today seems as big as an airport runway, but still strangely crippled. A predominantly poor population lives in its shadows. As Kovac observed, it’s heartening that so many citizens living nearby remain hopeful despite the patently daunting problems they confront.

But there’s good reason to wonder whether this “backbone” is broken economically, even if its citizens’ spirits aren’t. Pio Nono’s businesses underperform. Commercial property values there are diving. Why? Primarily just because a growing proportion of the customer base is poor.

That in turn accelerates the exodus. As higher-income individuals have migrated further out, so have many of the more prosperous economic engines of Macon-Bibb. The few bright spots that are left near Pio Nono, such as Mercer, have grown in relatively insulated pods.

In a July study, economics wunderkinds Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline and Emmauel Saez -- from Berkeley and Harvard -- offered us a way to quantify the intractability of Bibb’s poverty.

They focused on the metric of fast inter-generational upward mobility -- specifically, the chance that a child growing up in a household with bottom-fifth income will wind up in adulthood with income in the top fifth.

Their conclusion is that our swath of the South, including Macon, Milledgeville and Atlanta, is a particularly hard place in which to move up from the bottom. Only 4.5 percent of Bibb’s kids exhibited the big kind of upward mobility that the economists watched. That’s lower than in just about any other developed economy in the world, according to the study’s authors.

Kids growing up in low-income households in other U.S. commuting zones like Pittsburgh, San Diego and San Francisco are almost three times more likely to migrate to high-income status. Of the 50 biggest cities, Atlanta ranks dead last in income mobility. If Macon were a top-50 city, its rate of income mobility would be similar, ranking 48th.

The economists’ interesting U.S. map of generational income mobility, which you can view at http://www.equality-of-opportunity.org/, suggests that inter-generational income mobility is least in areas with the highest densities of African Americans.

While acknowledging that obvious correlation, the authors cautioned that poor whites in those zones also exhibit the same dearth of big inter-generational income gains.

The economists therefore hypothesize that income immobility has more determinants than race, and must include factors associated with the character of the places themselves -- factors like sprawl, isolation from jobs, segregation by income and ineffectual educational offerings.

Macon exhibits all that: high African-American density, sprawl that’s partly race-and-class motivated, poor people living far from many employers, weak transit, income segregation and sorry educational results for low-income students.

In his acclaimed book, “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell popularized a sociological concept known as “accumulative advantage,” which helps trace great individual success stories back to a complex stew of hard work and personal gifts alongside inherited advantages, excellent support systems and lucky timing.

Macon’s poor live the flip side of Gladwell’s story, something we might call accumulative disadvantage. Many things are stacked against our poor kids: weak family structures; a cacophony of trouble around them in their neighborhoods and schools; naturally constrained support systems from households with low incomes and low net worth; few chances to apply their native talents to meaningful disciplines; racial burdens; limited employment opportunities; bad timing.

Those are tough disadvantages for almost anyone to overcome. Still, we’re blessed with some intriguing alternatives that might make it more commonly possible for Bibb’s poorest kids to rise.

David Oedel teaches at Mercer University’s law school.

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