Every Friday a member of the editorial board speaks with a prominent figure from the University or surrounding community. This week Gabriella Kostrzewa sat down with the chairman of UNC’s economics department, Patrick Conway, to talk about economic mobility in the South.
A recent study out of Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley has sent shockwaves through the South.
According to the study, upward social mobility — the ability to move from the bottom rungs of society to the top — is essentially non-existent in the South, particularly in Raleigh and Charlotte.
While chairman of UNC’s department of economics Patrick Conway thinks the study provides valuable insight, he says the bigger question to ask is what percentage of people born in the bottom stay there throughout their lives.
“More important is perhaps the chance to move up. In other words to improve your station in life.”
The study, Conway argues, only examined people moving from one extreme to another — from rags to riches. It should have been more multidimensional and less extreme. It is still valuable to study those that move up in life but do not come from destitute poverty or end in luxurious wealth.
“We want everyone at the bottom to have the opportunity to improve whether they get right to the top or not. If you think of the American dream, it is that each family has the opportunity to live better than their parents did.”
If the perception this study espouses is adopted, it could have drastic implications on what people think to be the American Dream and the ability to achieve it. It will no longer be something people can believe in.
Another caveat Conway points out is that the study only examined children born in 1980-82, meaning that the education system they grew up with is vastly different than the one currently educating North Carolina children.
“We are not really looking at what education is today. If we move that to the example of N.C. and to the observation in Charlotte, it probably doesn’t include people who were educated during Jim Hunt’s tenure as governor when he was raising teacher wages.”
Conway noted that if the study were conducted in ten years, there might be greater mobility in N.C. If this is the case, then a catalyst for that change could be the type of education system in place.
The South, he says, has always lagged behind in public education to the rest of the country, especially in relation to K-12 education. Education, and the quality of it, plays a large role in determining if a person moves up in society.
“Without that education it is difficult to imagine making the gains in income that would allow you to move up the spectrum,” he said, “It is the one thing that we as a country, it is the one public good, we give to our young people growing up.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.