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Monday, January 27, 2014

Poverty in Wilmington . . . and why it is so difficult to get out

We live in a state that likes to think good things about itself--sometimes our biggest obstacle to solving problems is our adamant refusal to admit they exist.

Here's a problem that undercuts the entire minimum-wage, violence-in-Wilmington, public education, etc. etc. etc. arguments:

Delaware in general (and Wilmington in specific) is a very bad place to be poor, because your chances of upward mobility are considerably worse than the national averages.

You should visit the link for a larger view of the county-by-county map if you want nuances, but even a quick glance at Delaware will tell you what the statistics show:  in terms of the ability of children born into poverty escaping poverty, Delaware ranks with North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi [the darker the red, the worse the chances].

As for Wilmington proper, Equality of Opportunity divided the country up into 709 Commuting Zones (counties that shared a common economic center) and then rated the chances of a child growing up in the bottom fifth managing to reach the top fifth within that zone.  Some of the percentages are quite amazing, and others are predictable once you think about it.  Commuting Zones based on smaller, more rural areas tend to have more economic mobility, partly because there is less of a difference between the top and bottom fifth than elsewhere (which is why, I suspect, that North Dakota is apparently the very best state in the nation for moving out of poverty). [Note:  in the trivia mode, I learned that there is a "Virginia Beach, Nebraska"--never knew that.]

But even some major cities fare quite well:  Bismarck ND (18.7% chance); Dubuque IA (15.9%); San Jose CA (12.9%); Wheeling WV (12.5%); San Francisco CA (12.2%); Tom's River NJ (12.2%); Washington DC (!) (11.2%); Seattle WA (10.9%); Scranton PA (10.7%); New York City (10.5%); Boston MA (10.5%); Newark NJ (!) (10.2%) . . . 

. . . and Wilmington DE (6.6%).  According to my count (and I could be off by one or two places as they did not number the columns, the Wilmington DE Commuter Zone placed 526th out of 709 CZs in the entire nation.  This places us in the company of Chicago IL, Baltimore MD, Kalamazoo MI, and Muskogee OK.

I'm still having trouble wrapping my head around the fact that it is nearly twice as easy to escape poverty in Washington DC, and 50% easier to escape poverty in Newark NJ than it is in Wilmington DE.


Equality of Opportunity cites five major factors that correlate with the ability to escape from poverty (I'm citing from the Executive Summary for ease of quotation, but I've worked through the entire paper, which is here.)

First, let's talk about what factors do NOT appear to have a correlation to escaping poverty:
We find modest correlations between upward mobility and local tax and government expenditure policies and no systematic correlation between mobility and local labor market conditions, rates of migration, or access to higher education.

So what do they find?

First:  Segregation

We begin by showing that upward income mobility is significantly lower in areas with larger African-American populations. However, white individuals in areas with large African- American populations also have lower rates of upward mobility, implying that racial shares matter at the community (rather than individual) level. One mechanism for such a community-level effect of race is segregation. Areas with larger black populations tend to be more segregated by income and race, which could affect both white and black low-income individuals adversely. Indeed, we find a strong negative correlation between standard measures of racial and income segregation and upward mobility.
Second:  [Income] Inequality
CZs with larger Gini coefficients have less upward mobility, consistent with the “Great Gatsby curve” documented across countries (Krueger 2012, Corak 2013). In contrast, top 1% income shares are not highly correlated with intergenerational mobility both across CZs within the U.S. and across countries. Although one cannot draw definitive conclusions from such correlations, they suggest that the factors that erode the middle class hamper intergenerational mobility more than the factors that lead to income growth in the upper tail. 
Third:  K-12 School systems
Areas with higher test scores (controlling for income levels), lower dropout rates, and smaller class sizes have higher rates of upward mobility. In addition, areas with higher local tax rates, which are predominantly used to finance public schools, have higher rates of mobility. 
Fourth:  Social Capital
the strength of social networks and community involvement in an area -- are [is] very strongly correlated with mobility. For instance, high upward mobility areas tend to have higher fractions of religious individuals and greater participation in local civic organizations. 
Fifth:  Family Structure
The strongest predictors of upward mobility are measures of family structure, such as the fraction of single parents in the area. As with race, parents' marital status does not matter purely through its effects at the individual level. Children of married parents also have higher rates of upward mobility if they live in communities with fewer single parents. 
There is an awful lot here to digest--almost something for everyone.

It is at this point that you would normally expect a nice, cut-and-dried program of political reform, but it is not time for that yet.  These are national trends, and while we should expect to have them bear some weight on the problem of escaping poverty in Wilmington, we should also be aware that every city, every Commuting Zone if you will, is different, and there are nuances to be examined in the light of the full report and when compared to the data from Wilmington.

So let's bat around causes for awhile before we start jumping on cures.

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