Summit Snapshot: The Future of Equity in Place, Race, and Economy

05 Nov 2015 | By Jeff T., Oakland, California
Summit Snapshot: The Future of Equity in Place, Race, and Economy
Above: Equity Summit 2015 Panelists: Place, Race, and the Economy Plenary

Over the next few weeks, Equity Blog will feature a dozen first-person accounts of Equity Summit 2015. Each guest blog post will focus in on a particular session, plenary, or workshop — offering readers insight into and reflection on the Summit experience.

“Place matters and place changes.” These words, spoken by University of Southern California’s Manuel Pastor were central themes to the opening plenary at Equity Summit 2015 in Los Angeles last week. In this session, PolicyLink President and CEO, Angela Glover Blackwell, moderated an excellent and inspiring session with five esteemed panelists: the aforementioned Manuel Pastor (2nd from left) , who is a professor of Sociology and American Studies and Ethnicity at USC; Harvard University economist Raj Chetty (standing); Chief Economist at AFL-CIO, William Spriggs (4th from left); California businessman and philanthropist, Tom Steyer (3rd from left); and W.K. Kellogg Foundation CEO and President, La June Montgomery Tabron (5th from left).

The session started with an insightful presentation by Chetty discussing the feasibility of the “American dream,” which he defined as the odds that a child born to parents in the bottom fifth of the income distribution would, over the course of their lifetime, rise to the wealthiest fifth. To attendees of the Equity Summit, perhaps, it was no surprise that the odds of achieving this kind of upward mobility in America are not good compared to other countries. In fact, a child born in Canada is almost twice as likely to make this jump as a child in the United States. Perhaps we should call it the “Canadian dream”. Moreover, there is incredible variability in upward mobility within the United States broadly and within its metropolitan areas. Whereas some smaller cities, such as Dubuque, Iowa, and San Jose, California, provide relatively favorable environments for their residents to rise from the bottom to the top of the income ladder, larger metros like Chicago and Memphis have much less economic mobility. We see this even more so among those who are born in one location and move to a city of higher or lower economic mobility: as Chetty’s research shows, the earlier a child moves to a city of higher upward mobility, the greater the likelihood that he or she will grow up to achieve this “American dream”. Essentially, place — where you live — matters for income inequality. 

However, place also changes. To Manuel’s point, the data used for Chetty’s analysis doesn’t account for the last few years, where, as a resident of the Bay Area I can tell you, San Jose is no longer the kind of place that embraces upward income mobility. Or rather I should say, it seems like San Jose (and the majority of the Bay Area for that matter) embraces upward income mobility for the few, while most folks are left behind. I moved to Oakland from the East Coast three and a half years ago to pursue work in education and community change, and it is startling to see how quickly the wealth of the Bay Area, largely provided by the tech sector, has shifted the character of communities and the cadence of the conversation on the local economy. Not everyone can be employed by the tech sector though, nor should they be. A healthy community is a community that provides for a breadth and depth of opportunity for all its residents. We must invest in places and neighborhoods that have low levels of opportunity, helping to catalyze the kind of economic growth where all of us have access to our goals, aspirations, and dreams.

Indeed, on this topic, one thought I was left with at the end of the session was the way in which people with lower access to resources — whether social capital, financial, or otherwise — also lack access to the level of investment capital that more affluent populations and communities have. This falls starkly along racial lines: in one example pulled from the headlines in my own backyard, less than 1 percent of senior venture capitalists involved in investment decisions — decisions that help determine the technologies that shape our worlds — are Black (4 of 552 people) and only 1.3 percent are Hispanic. What would it take and what would it mean for the betterment of our society for those who have traditionally been excluded from the corridors of power to be included in these types of decisions to invest in and shape communities? And, in doing so, how can we shape a narrative that exudes a language of inclusivity and empowerment?

At Equity Summit 2015 in Los Angeles, 3,000 attendees were asking these questions. And will be asking them (and many more) as they return to their communities to dig in and get to work.