Upward Mobility: New Routes in the Race For America’s Fastest Growing Cities

Wake up, America. We have a mobility problem. And we’re not talking about former First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign or the number of potholes on the highways to America’s fastest growing cities.

Yes, infrastructure maintenance and improving the physical health of children are important. But for the kids who sit in front of electronics for the better part of a day, as long as they live in the American northeast, much of the Midwest and a good portion of the West, they are poised for a better life than their parents.

For children who live in Appalachia and the “Rust Belt,” on the other hand, the cards are stacked against them — even if they never lay eyes on a digital screen, always eat healthy school lunches, are physically active. That’s because their future employment opportunities are dwindling, as is their ability or likelihood to pick up and move down the road to another city with a more promising employment future.

For these kids, “Let’s move” isn’t that simple. Why? Because America’s post-recession recovery is more one-sided than we would like.

A recent Economic Innovation Group (EIG) report shows that while the United States has been recovering economically as a whole, the individual areas where new businesses have popped up – and employed people – are very limited.

According to the report, 20 counties alone generated half of the country’s new business establishments.

Most children in the United States are growing up today in counties with a poor record of fostering upward mobility. As the geography of U.S. economic growth narrows, it may become even harder to prevent further retreat of economic mobility.”

How do we change this? How do we spread out new business ventures and incentivize entrepreneurs to start and grow successful companies in areas that are currently economically depressed? How do we tighten the gap that only seems to be growing as economically vibrant cities get stronger and blighted cities become more depressed?

A recent piece by AEI’s James Pethokoukis on “left behind” America cites some creative ideas, including relocating large federal departments that don’t need to be inside Washington, D.C. (which usually enjoys low unemployment) into cities that do need help building economic infrastructure.

Pethokoukis also explores “Universal Basic Service,” an idea that would focus on helping to build communities in areas where demand is high, but supply is low. He cites economist Diane Coyle, who says,

If teachers or nurses do not want to move to Detroit and West Virginia … then there should be a pay premium large enough to overcome their reluctance. And the quality of service in local transport networks should be as good in declining as in wealthy areas.”

A third proposal uses tax breaks as incentives to encourage private investment – a route most strongly favored by the EIG itself. Yeah, that sounds boring, but the implementation is a whole rethinking of how America is structured today, and looks at removing regulatory hurdles to create specialized regions like Silicon Valley for technology and Raleigh-Durham for biotech research. Quoting venture capitalist Marc Andreessen,

Imagine a Bitcoin Valley, for instance, where some country fully legalizes cryptocurrencies for all financial functions. Or a Drone Valley, where a particular region removes all legal barriers to flying unmanned aerial vehicles locally. A Driverless Car Valley in a city that allows experimentation with different autonomous car designs, redesigned roadways and safety laws. A Stem Cell Valley. And so on.”

These three very big ideas would likely take quite a bit of political maneuvering for the legislation to begin the restructuring, let alone passage of laws to begin implementation, but there are other ways, smaller ways, to help people in distressed areas seek employment and help propel themselves toward upward mobility.

Pethokoukis colleague Michael Strain suggested multiple proposals to address relocation, disability, minimum wage, immigration, entrepreneurial endeavors, and more.

Ultimately, if we want America – all of America – to enjoy the benefits of our economic recovery, we need to make changes that make it possible for all citizens to earn their success with hard work.

“Let’s move” can have a whole new, broader meaning when we consider how we can offer a hand up to those who want to climb and make a better life for themselves and their families.