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Integration is a Key to Upward Mobility

David Callahan

A major new study on economic mobility by a team of top scholars has revealed that it's hard to move up the ladder if you're isolated from good schools and jobs. 

What a surprising finding -- or at least it was surprising forty years ago.

Back then, combating the isolation and segregation linked to poverty was near the top of the liberal agenda. An earlier generation of researchers found that poor and minority kids did better when they lived in mixed communities and attended integrated schools. For years, there was a huge push to better integrate housing and schools.

But integration was largely a bust. Enabling poor kid to go to better schools -- through busing and more choice -- proved either politically difficult or not so effective. 

And enabling people to move was just as hard. Affluent communities have been remarkably adept at keeping lower income people at arms length -- particularly through zoning rules that prohibit more affordable housing options like apartments and condos. (Lisa Prevost documents this in her new book, Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice, and Real Estate.)

Federal court efforts to mandate more residential integration have dragged out for years, as we saw in the titanic battle over housing in Yonkers. Many villages in Westchester County, including my hometown of Hastings-on-Hudson, are now under court order to build low-income housing -- as a result of litigation that has been going on forever. 

Overall, the prospects don't look bright for forcing wealthy communities to allow broader access to the good schools and jobs in those communities. This doesn't mean we should stop trying. But it does suggest we need better strategies for integrating low-income people into zones with more opportunity. 

One approach is to bring more opportunity to poor and isolated communities. So, for example, Syracuse, New York, is in the middle of a major push to improve its schools, attract more strivers to the city, and incubate new businesses. This comes after of years of failed efforts to enable the poor residents of Syracuse to integrate more into that city's wealthier suburbs. 

The growing attraction of car-free urban living to Millennials suggests that urban revitalization could do much to create the socioeconomically mixed communities that foster upward mobility. Of course, that assumes assumes that revitalization doesn't turn into gentrification that just pushes poor people out. 

What's needed is smart public policy that not only draws people back into cities and poor neighborhoods to create new business and improve schools, but also ensures that mixed communities remain that way.