Smart growth strategies a key to economic opportunity

Income mobility map
A map of income mobility. Mixed-income neighborhoods turn out to be a key indicator of a family’s ability to rise out of poverty. Via New York Times.

A new study from Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley underscores why smart growth strategies are a key part of economically strong regions.

The Equality of Opportunity Project examined economic mobility—the likelihood a family will rise from the bottom of the income ladder toward the top. Schools, civic engagement and two-parent households are all correlated with economic mobility, but the study also considered factors that previous studies of economic mobility could not, including a region’s geography. The study found that where a family lives also impacts their potential to rise up the income ladder.

Economist Paul Krugman, discussing the study this weekend in The New York Times, highlighted Atlanta, a booming city by many measures but one where lower-income households have a hard time rising into the middle class and beyond.

So what’s the matter with Atlanta? A new study suggests that the city may just be too spread out, so that job opportunities are literally out of reach for people stranded in the wrong neighborhoods. Sprawl may be killing Horatio Alger.

Atlanta’s neighborhoods are separated both geographically and economically. As the Times explained, “concentrated poverty, extensive traffic and a weak public-transit system make it difficult to get to the job opportunities” in Atlanta, and this combination undermines families’ ability to move up the income ladder. In contrast, “upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhood.” This is where smart growth strategies come in.

Smart growth strategies emphasize a wide array of housing and transportation choices, and can create the types of neighborhoods that foster economic opportunity. Diverse housing styles can help make a neighborhood accessible for families of many income levels. And transportation choices make it easier to get to work for everyone, no matter their household income.

Our recent report, Federal Involvement in Real Estate: A Call for Action highlights some of the ways federal programs could better support this type of development. Our proposals would encourage a wider array of housing types, make it easier to build new homes near existing public transportation facilities, and help families save for their first home. All of these strategies support the economically diverse neighborhoods that Krugman and the Harvard/Berkeley study commend.

If you support this type of development, speak out. Ask your members of Congress to make federal real estate programs better support American families and communities.