Opportunity Hamstrung

Not much chance of getting out of poverty in the south

Not much chance of getting out of poverty in the south
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Friday, Knoxviews mentioned an ongoing study on the equality of opportunity in the United States.

The results shouldn’t be all that surprising if you’ve been paying attention…especially here in the south.

According to the report, economic mobility…or the chances of someone starting at the bottom 20% of income earners and ending up in the top 20% of income earners is incredibly remote…especially in the southeast US.

When ranking the top 100 largest metropolitan areas in the US…three Tennessee cities appear: Nashville is 79th, Knoxville is 87th and Memphis is dead last…again.

When you look at all the areas in the US, Tennessee has 19 “places” which include urban, suburban, and rural areas all over the state. The best place in Tennessee for upward mobility? Cookeville, TN…which ranks 471st out of 709 places listed.

So while Marsha Blackburn sees a “thriving economy” and Bill Haslam trumpets Tennessee as an “Economic Miracle”, the reality for people who grow up in less fortunate situations is, they aren’t experiencing the prosperity they’re talking about.

The lack of opportunity in these areas is due to systemic problems that include: racial and economic segregation, income inequality, educational system, the strength of social institutions, and family structure.

Its interesting that the areas that are most adversely impacted are also areas that actively seek to attract low wage/low skill jobs. The problem with focusing on these low skill/low wage jobs is, there’s also less opportunity for more highly skilled individuals to find the jobs they’re looking for…which often leads to them moving from the area.

Their departure ultimately serves as a drag on the ability of folks who are trying to work their way up because the intellectual capital of the community has been diminished.

Its been a quandary for urban and rural areas alike for decades…especially those that once relied on the steady stream of high paying low skilled jobs that were a staple in the 1960’s and 70’s.

But jobs alone aren’t the primary factor in fostering this opportunity gap, its wages. Wages have dropped 12% for low income earners. Efforts to increase wages for these individuals have been hampered by conservative politicians who think CEO’s deserve a 762% increase in pay while the folks on the line only get 5.7%. After all…they built it, right?

So while the tippy-top of the income spectrum enjoyed nearly 95% of the economic growth since the dawn of the economic downturn, the rest of us have been left to fight for the 5% or so that remains.

An ABC/Washington Post poll released in December showed that 64% of Americans believe current economic policy favors the wealthy. That same poll showed 66% of Americans favor raising the minimum wage.

Since the 1980’s we’ve been told that prosperity would trickle down if we worked hard enough…yet even large low wage companies are being forced to admit that working for them won’t pay the bills. Its bad enough that even folks who try to better their circumstances are met with more hurdles than they can overcome.

Clearly, the preferred economic policies that we’ve been pushing for the past several decades have failed us. Unfortunately, those policies haven’t really changed in the past several years…and even if they had, we wouldn’t have felt the impact of those changes yet.

It takes a long time to turn a $15,700,000,000,000 economy around.

But we have to start sometime.

As the President prepares for the State of the Union on Tuesday, I hope he focuses on the real issues that have helped bring the debate about income inequality into the mainstream.

This isn’t about putting one group over another. This isn’t a war on the rich. Its about adjusting policy so people can realize the American Dream in a new world.

I hope that’s something we can all get behind.

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