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Urban Plight: Vanishing Upward Mobility

September 8, 2010

Joel Kotkin in The American:

Since the beginnings of civilization, cities have been crucibles of progress both for societies and individuals. A great city, wrote Rene Descartes in the seventeenth century, represented “an inventory of the possible,” a place where people could create their own futures and lift up their families.

What characterized great cities such as Amsterdam—and, later, places such as London, New York , Chicago, and Tokyo—was the size of their property-owning middle class. This was a class whose roots, for the most part, lay in the peasantry or artisan class, and later among industrial workers. Their ascension into the ranks of thebourgeoisie, petit or haute, epitomized the opportunities for social advancement created uniquely by cities.

In the twenty-first century—the first in which the majority of people will live in cities—this unique link between urbanism and upward mobility is under threat. Urban boosters still maintain that big cities remain unique centers for social uplift, but evidence suggests this is increasingly no longer the case.

This process reflects a shift in economic and social realities over the past few decades. For example, according to a recent Brookings Institution study, New York and Los Angeles have, among all U.S. cities, the smallest share of middle-income neighborhoods. In 1980, Manhattan ranked 17th among the nation’s counties for social inequality; by 2007 it ranked first, with the top fifth earning 52 times that of the lowest fifth, a disparity roughly comparable to that of Namibia. [More]

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