Richmond, Virginia is one of the toughest places in the United States to grow up if you are poor.
That's not hyperbole, but documented fact.
In May, economists at Harvard published a massive study demonstrating the estimated impact of where you lived as a child on your wages as an adult, based on data from over 5 million American families. The analysis allowed researchers to calculate the predicted impact of growing up in a given county on one's adult earnings.
The results for Richmond are not just disturbing, they are shocking. Authors Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren of Harvard estimate that of 2,478 counties, Richmond is the 48th worst in fostering upward mobility for poor kids-in other words, worse than 98% of other counties in the U.S. (In Virginia, independent cities are treated as equivalent to counties.)
In practical terms, this means that a child growing up in the 25th percentile of the income distribution (relatively poor) from birth to age 20 is predicted to have average annual earnings 15% lower as an adult than a child at the 25th percentile of income who grows up in an "average" community. This translates to $3,860 a year less in earnings, or put another way, the difference between getting by on just over $26,000 to having $30,000. That $320 a month can make a huge practical impact in the life of a working family.
How do these numbers compare to our immediate neighbors? Low-income children growing up in Henrico County have earnings as adults comparable to the national average for all low-income children, and low-income children growing up in Chesterfield County are actually expected to earn significantly more as adults than the national average. This is the uncomfortable truth: many residents leave the City to put their children in county schools because they think their kids are more likely to be better off. As this data shows, on average they are not mistaken.
The Richmond situation, while not literally unique, is among the worst in the nation. But a closer look at the data shows an even more challenging story. It's not only low-income Richmond residents who are less likely to earn as much as adults as their peers--it's also middle-income and even affluent children who grow up in the City.
Put another way, highly concentrated poverty negatively impacts nearly all City residents. School outcomes that are among the worst in Virginia are one important pathway for this negative impact. The gaps in availability of services and in quality of services across multiple other areas (compared to affluent suburban jurisdictions) are additional pathways. Finally, lack of access to remunerative employment for residents, especially those who do not have access to a motor vehicle, is a major barrier.
Understanding the depth of these structural challenges must be the starting point for an integrated response. We also must be realistic about the policy and political obstacles involved in implementing an integrated response.
The program of the Office of Community Wealth Building rests on several key propositions:
- We must tackle the multiple barriers to prosperity simultaneously. No single area--education, employment, housing--offers a standalone magic bullet. Consequently, our method for getting things done must be intensively collaborative.
- Given limited resources, we should focus investments on those areas likely to have the most positive impact, and wherever possible assure that City investments leverage funding and support from other sources.
- We need to think about both the micro-level and the macro-level pictures simultaneously. For instance, at the micro-level we need to understand what it takes to support individual households from our most challenged neighborhoods in moving from poverty to economic stability. We then need to build the capacity over time to support households at sufficient scale to begin moving the macro-level picture.
- We have no choice but to think big and aim high. Ranking in the bottom 2% of the nation's counties in terms of upward mobility for poor children is not something that can be meaningfully changed by a few additional programs. It requires more fundamental changes in the systemic processes that are producing that outcome.
What does fundamental change look like? In Richmond's case there are three approaches that must be taken, all at the same time. First, bringing more resources, investment and opportunities to places where our low-income residents live. Second, tearing down barriers that isolate our highest-poverty neighborhoods from the rest of the city and region. Third, transforming our densest concentrations of poverty into vibrant, mixed-use and mixed-income neighborhoods, in a way that empowers rather than displaces people.
Just as we cannot focus on housing, education, and employment separately, we cannot focus on only one change strategy to the exclusion of the others and hope to make significant progress.
As the authors of the Harvard study note, "The broader lesson of our analysis is that social mobility should be tackled at a local level."
That's exactly what the Office of Community Wealth Building is trying to do--with the help of as many fellow "tacklers" as possible.
-Dr. Thaddeus Williamson
Director, Mayor's Office of Community Wealth Building