The destiny of place in social class

Screen grab from New York Times Interactive News Feature "The Best and Worst Places to Grow Up," May 5, 2015.

Screen grab from New York Times interactive news feature “The Best and Worst Places to Grow Up,” May 5, 2015, showing central and northern Minnesota.

Last week, the New York Times introduced a fascinating news graphic showing the power of place in determining the economic future of people born there. (“The Best and Worst Places to Grow Up,” May 5, 2015). The graphic accompanied the story “An Atlas of Upward Mobility” by David Leonhardt, Amanda Cox and Claire Cain Miller, which deals more specifically with neighborhoods within a city.

You can view the economic prospects of your area by looking at the graphic for yourself.

If you read the story, which miters in close to the concept of neighborhoods and suburbs within a city, you’d rightly be skeptical about drawing too many specific conclusions about other places.

To me, it seems to be another example of how cultural attitudes tend to become the most powerful factors in our lives. Because this story really isn’t about the power of place; it’s about the cultural condition of the people in those places. This is also why people who live in the better-off places just can’t seem to fully understand what it’s like for people in the worse-off ones, or why folks in poverty can’t see a way toward a better life.

At the core of this problem is empathy. When we understand that society is made up of many parts — super rich, aspirational, middle class, working poor, poverty-stricken, healthy and sick, lost and found — we cannot ignore or mischaracterize people on the micro level. We are all human. A study like the one referenced in the story is just a momentary snapshot. Something old and true is at play here: Love thy neighbor. Most people can understand that one. You can scream at your TV, but it takes a lot more venom to scream at your neighbor.


  1. All I can ask is what happened up here from the 60’s & 70’s? My father did not finish High School and my mother had a HS degree. All of my sisters and brothers have college degrees and I have been successful enough to live where and how I want for many yrs without a college degree. The fact that my dad was a miner didn’t hold any of us kids back. That goes for dozens of cousins that had the same type of upbringing and too many friends to count. I know of hundreds of relatives, friends and old classmates that did way better than their parents who were raised here.

    Sounds to me like another excuse for folks to feel they can’t make it or they are somehow less capable than others due to circumstances beyond their control. Thank goodness no one told me or the hundreds of others we couldn’t do better than our parents, not that we would’ve listened anyways.

    • Ken – The difference was that you and your siblings had access to public higher education that was, by today’s standards, practically free. A person could be trained for a trade or to go on for advanced degrees without risk of debt. A person could work part time and pay their way through the University of Minnesota. Those days are gone. I know it can “seem like” people are lazier or less hard working than people now. Maybe it’s because of phones or the prevalence of television. The truth is that a lot of the opportunities that you had and even that I had in the late ’90s are gone or are more expensive.

  2. Ranger47 says

    Just so we’re clear on the facts, the cost to go to college is today verses when I & Ken grew up is not due to decreased government “investment”. Public investment in higher education in America is vastly larger today than it was during the supposed golden age of public funding in the 1960s.

    Government spending on college education has increased at a much faster rate than government spending in general. For example, the military’s budget is about 1.8 times higher today than it was in 1960, while legislative appropriations to higher education are more than 10 times higher!!

    This astonishing rise in college tuition correlates closely with a huge increase in public subsidies for higher education. Hmmm…

    State appropriations to higher education have skyrocketed, increasing more than fourfold in today’s dollars, from $11.1 billion in 1960 to $48.2 billion in 1975. By 1980, state funding for higher education increased a mind-boggling 390 percent in real terms over the previous 20 years.

    State appropriations reached a record inflation-adjusted high of $86.6 billion in 2009. They declined as a consequence of the so-called Great Recession, but have since again risen to $81 billion. Yet this massive increase of public money has not reduced tuition: quite the contrary. And these totals do not include the enormous expansion of the federal Pell Grant program, which has grown, in today’s dollars, to $34.3 billion per year in 2015 from $10.3 billion in 2000.

    So…where’s the money going?? Education infrastructure? Professors? Administration?

    One factor driving increasing costs is the constant expansion of university administration. According to the Department of Education data, administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009. So, let’s reduce the number of administrators, reduce the appropriations back to the level we had in the ‘60’s and we’ll be just fine.

    What say you??

    • Gerald S says

      The most important thing in measuring the cost of anything, including government spending and taxes, over a period of time is to use CONSTANT DOLLARS. To look at anything comparing 2015 dollars with, for example, 1968 dollars is to fool yourself and attempt to fool anyone you are talking to.

      So although nominal dollar spending for higher ed, like many things, has increased strikingly, constant dollar spending has not kept pace, and the percentage of costs carried by state and federal government sources has decreased strikingly.

      Some aspects of education costs have increased in real dollars, including administrative expenses. In general, administration, whether private or public, has become much more expensive over my lifetime — much more so in private industry than in public service, as we all know.

      But the real costs students are required to pay have gone up by large amounts, while at the same time the ability of those student to earn enough to pay their way has collapsed. When I was in college, I could earn enough in the summer to pay for a year of tuition, fees, room, and board and have enough left for a generous entertainment budget, partly due to better real wages and partly due to lower real costs. Today it is no longer possible to “work” your way through college, and the generosity of government support, from funding of higher ed in general to availability of grants and low cost loans, has disappeared.

      Of course, as I am sure you remember, the tax rates, especially for high income earners, were much higher back then too.

  3. By 1960 the military was already a bloated Cold War behemoth, and the fact that it merely doubled since has little bearing on higher Ed. I agree that bloated administration is a problem. Probably not the biggest reason for the cost, but a factor. We battle that as faculty, too. I think the biggest reason for the increased cost is the fact that 70 percent of the workforce needs college and not all of them are fully prepared for it. It’s fully ingrained in the economy now, and expenses have risen with that. But nothing pays for itself in future growth like higher education. It generates public and private innovation that creates jobs not just for the student, but for the communities they will build, work and serve.

    I fail to see how busting down the kind of affordable education you got and used to get ahead in life is a solution to the problems articulated here. But you asked for a response and that’s what I’ve got tonight. Godspeed.

    • Gerald S says

      I also would point out that in the 1960’s we were waging the Cold War, with massive military expenses due to calculations that we might have to fight the Soviets and the Warsaw Pact as well as China, and also waging a full scale war in Southeast Asia, with more than 1 million men in the theater area.

      Budgeting for all that created a huge need for military spending, a need we do not have today, when our military spending is greater than all other country’s put together and our most prominent opponents are using assault rifles and improvised explosives and have no navy, air force, or ability to project power outside their immediate neighborhood. Costs are understandably lower.

      The one spending area that has grown faster than anything else, including education spending, is health care. In the 60’s health care cost less than military spending, about 6% of GDP. Now it costs 18% of GDP, about three times military spending. Administration is a big factor in health care as well, accounting for somewhere between 20 and 35% of spending, depending on how the calculation in done.

  4. John Ramos says

    I’ve said it before, but I will say it again: The middle class, or at least that portion of it that is in danger of falling into the lower class, has hugely benefited from a government subsidy known as the Earned Income Tax Credit, instituted during President Reagan’s time in office, which rewards people who work for at least part of the year with additional money. I consider the EIC a good thing, having benefited from it myself. But what if it didn’t exist? Speaking for myself, if the EIC didn’t exist, I would now be burdened with an insurmountable pile of debt, rather than just a heavy amount.

    I think that people who live in more rural areas benefit more from working hard than people in urban areas do. In rural areas, the cost of living tends to be lower, and opportunities for rough manual labor (and off-the-books labor) are greater. When you work for part of the year as a logger and get $10,000 from the EIC based on you and your four kids at the end of year, that is a tremendous boost to your income and peace of mind. In urban areas, the simple desire to work hard isn’t always enough. Everything costs more, and logging and ditch-digging jobs can be scarce.

    Aaron talks about lack of empathy being a problem, and I agree with him. I have a lack of empathy myself. I would just ask all of the conservative commenters on here, who place so much stock in individual responsibility, how much they and their friends have really benefited from government subsidies like the EIC. I am sure it’s plenty. Unless they don’t file taxes, or they make more than, like, $50,000 a year, the EIC is putting money in their pockets–and it’s money that they didn’t, strictly speaking, “earn.” It’s a subsidy granted to them by the government, in recognition of their value as human beings trying to make a go of it.

    So why the lack of empathy for people who take advantage of other subsidies?

  5. Ranger47 says

    Can’t disagree with you on subsidies John. I’ve yet to meet a person who didn’t like the ones they’re getting. And because we all like ’em, the folks we elect continue to create new ones and expand the old ones.

  6. John Ramos says

    It’s okay if you don’t want to answer the question, R47.

  7. Ranger47 says

    Don’t limit your empathy to a handful of people John. Try empathizing broadly, holistically. You’ll develop a greater appreciation for the world we live in…and you’ll answer your own question.

    But if an answer helps you – – I have no lack of empathy for those who “take advantage” of others. As I stated, we all do that. And sadly….we love it when do and crave for more.

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