Paul Krugman: Sprawl may be to blame for low social mobility

Champions of older cities long ago criticized suburbs (or, worse, exurbs) on aesthetic grounds. Then they pointed out the environmental damage of sprawl. Now comes data suggesting that the dispersal of homes and jobs from urban areas is bad economics.

This week New York Times columnist Paul Krugman used the occasion of Detroit pleading bankruptcy to shine a light on what superficially seems to be the opposite of the Michigan city: Atlanta, whose metro area has been experiencing a population boom over the past few decades. In his “Stranded by Sprawl,” Krugman argues that “Atlanta looks just like Detroit gone bust: both are places where the American dream seems to be dying, where the children of the poor have great difficulty climbing the economic ladder.”

Krugman cites a recent study by the Equality of Opportunity Project (headed by economics professors from Harvard University and UC-Berkeley) that ranked American metro areas by economic mobility — in particular, the chance that a child born into a low-income family will move up the economic ladder in adulthood (see methodology here).

Of the 50 biggest U.S. “commuting zones,” Atlanta ranked last in the percentage of individuals born into the bottom income quintile moving up to the top income quintile (4.0 percent), and Detroit ranked 47th (5.1 percent). Salt Lake City was first (11.5 percent), but most of the top 10 in terms of economic mobility were older, densely settled metro areas such as San Francisco and New York. The Boston area was 9th, with 9.8 percent going from the bottom to the top income level; Manchester, New Hampshire (which has many characteristics of a Gateway City), was 8th, at 9.9 percent.

Krugman argues that the sprawling nature of Atlanta, where houses and jobs are being hurled at ever-greater distances from the center, leads to economic segregation and fewer chances to rise out of poverty:

…in Atlanta poor and rich neighborhoods are far apart because, basically, everything is far apart; Atlanta is the Sultan of Sprawl, even more spread out than other major Sun Belt cities. This would make an effective public transportation system nearly impossible to operate even if politicians were willing to pay for it, which they aren’t. As a result, disadvantaged workers often find themselves stranded; there may be jobs available somewhere, but they literally can’t get there.

Though Krugman doesn’t mention it, all of the above may be equally applicable to Detroit, which has a lower population density than most major Northern cities and has fewer jobs are concentrated in its center than even Atlanta does (according to an April report by the Brookings Institution). Krugman concludes that the Equality of Opportunity report strengthens the case for a smart-growth strategy of compact urban areas with dependable public transit, something that the Gateway Cities Innovation Institute has long been advocating. (However, Krugman’s column, with its emphasis on a handful of the largest US metro areas, is symptomatic of a potential oversight of mid-sized cities. Not only multimillion-dollar subway systems, but also smaller, bus-oriented regional transit authorities in cities like Lowell and Springfield, can help connect low-income families to jobs.)

Krugman’s column also underscores the importance of further research on economic segregation. Last year a Pew Research study concluded that residential segregation by income is on the rise. In that study, Atlanta and Boston were almost the same in the percentage of low-income residents who live in census tracts where most of their neighbors are also low-income. (The percentage was 26 percent in Atlanta and 28 percent in Boston; it was 36 percent in Detroit.) However, census tracts in densely populated cities can be quite small (there are 181 in Boston), so the Pew study may not reflect proximity to good jobs or the degree to which residents of different income levels interact in schools, on public transit, etc. More data on the effects of smart growth strategies and urban revitalization on economic mobility could be quite valuable.

             – Robert David Sullivan

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