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Giving Young People a Shot at Economic Mobility — It Really Does Take a Village

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susan Wright
August 11, 2017

Leading up to the U.S. presidential election in 2016, concerns about growing income inequality were a regular topic of discussion. And Donald Trump’s ability to carry traditionally blue states in the Rust Belt showed that lower- and middle-income group-1013594_640families are concerned about their inability to climb the economic ladder. In the midst of current discussions about how tax cuts and trade deals might better serve those less fortunate in our country, it’s worth revisiting the findings of a 2014 study called “Where is the Land of Opportunity?” which identified the factors most associated with young people’s ability to climb the ladder of economic opportunity as they become adults.

Here are the top three factors:

  1. Family structure. When it comes to mobility, previous research has shown kids are more likely to succeed economically if they live in a home with two, married parents. But the “Land of Opportunity” study was the first to show low-income children are more likely to succeed economically if they live in a community with a high proportion of two-parent families, whether or not their own household has two parents.
  2. Racial and economic segregation. When low-income children are separated from those with more economic benefits, and when communities are segregated by race, there is less economic mobility. A 2012 study by the Pew Research Center indicates residential segregation by income has increased over the past three decades in the United States, especially in the 30 largest cities. A racial “dot map” of the United States created by a demographic researcher at the University of Virginia helps visualize racial segregation at the city and neighborhood level as of the 2010 census.
  3. School quality. When low-income children have access to great schools, they are more likely to succeed economically. Unfortunately, since property values contribute significantly to the funding of public schools on the local level, as our communities grow less economically diverse, it’s a Catch-22. Wealthy parents are increasingly paying a premium to buy homes situated in better performing school districts. This fuels economic segregation, which is especially notable for families with kids, according to a recent study by American Sociological Review. Consequently, economically isolated low-income children are more likely to go to schools with less funding where class sizes are larger, fewer enrichment and remedial programs exist, and fewer parents have the luxury of time to stay engaged.

Taken all together, it’s increasingly difficult for low-income children to climb the economic ladder when they live in economically segregated areas with many single-parent households and underperforming schools. The opportunity gap persists as young people start considering higher education and future job options. As an example, children from middle- and upper-income families often benefit from parents tapping into their personal networks to help them land internships and first professional job opportunities. In contrast, children from lower-income families are more likely to be exposed to jobs in the service sector.

What’s the solution to this systemic problem? There is no silver bullet, but providing extra support at key career decision points can make a significant difference.

Four nonprofit organizations are modeling the way:

  • Recognizing that it’s essential to engage students early on, Spark pairs middle school students from economically disadvantaged areas with career mentors. Students name their dream job, and then the organization connects them with an adult from their dream profession to learn what it takes to succeed in that career and set goals for getting there. Through an “apprenticeship,” students develop professional and life skills and complete a capstone project, such as developing a videogame with a software engineer.
  • Bottom Line provides one-on-one guidance and mentoring to low-income and first-generation students starting their senior year of high school. The program helps students through the process of choosing and applying for a college, and continues to support them in overcoming obstacles throughout their college experience. After graduation, the program helps them put together a career plan.
  • The Roots of Success environmental literacy and work readiness curriculum prepares youth and adults who have struggled in school to improve their communities through environmental careers. The curriculum has been incorporated into existing workforce development, job training, correctional and reentry programs. Students learn leadership, financial and environmental literacy, and social entrepreneurship skills which ready them for more than 125 environmental jobs and career pathways.
  • Year Up helps low- to moderate-income young people from urban areas move into meaningful careers in the mainstream economy. After spending six months in the classroom learning technical and professional skills employers are looking for, participants gain valuable work experience by interning for six months in partner companies like Google and American Express. Afterward, Year Up’s powerful alumni network helps graduates find jobs; others enroll in four-year degree programs.

These organizations are working examples of ways our collective “village” can put students on a path to careers with economic opportunity. To make these efforts the norm, not the exception, we need to build similar programs in to every economically segregated community.


Author: Susan Wright is a program manager at an environmental nonprofit in California. Previously, she coordinated a local government partnership for the City/County Association of Governments of San Mateo County, California. She is pursuing a Master of Public Administration at Presidio Graduate School.

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One Response to Giving Young People a Shot at Economic Mobility — It Really Does Take a Village

  1. Louise Compton Reply

    August 12, 2017 at 11:47 am

    Very interesting article. I work with young mother’s and children in San Mateo County, I had previously thought that it might be better for people who having trouble affording to live in this County to move to another County, but I can see why living here might be more beneficial for them considering the information in this article. I have found that even very low income people don’t want to move from here and try very hard to stay. This article show that it might be beneficial if they can.

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