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Brown forum on Income Inequality and Social Mobility: Data Meets Policy in Providence

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Brown University’s Wealth and Income Inequality Project hosted a talk Monday afternoon with Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, Brown President Christina Paxson and Professor of Economics John Friedman.

“I think reducing income inequality and increasing social mobility in America is one of the most profound policy challenges that we face right now,” said President Paxson framing the discussion. “What we know is that income inequality is on the rise, it has been for some time, social mobility is on the decline and we know a smaller fraction of children can expect to attain a living standard that is greater than their parents, which is something quite new for this country.”

Paxson continued, “There is no single magic bullet to fixing these problems… it’s going to take the concerted efforts of Federal, State, local policy organizations, community based organizations, as well as think tanks and universities to think about how we can reduce inequality and increase mobility.”

Brown economics professor John Friedman is perhaps best known for his work on the Opportunity Atlas, an interactive online resource that answers the question of “Which neighborhoods in America offer children the best chance to rise out of poverty?” by using anonymous data following 20 million Americans from childhood to their mid-30s.

Friedman presented the data that shows that upward mobility is getting harder in the United States. The fraction of children who grow up to attain a higher standard of living than their parents. For instance, in 1940, more than 90 percent of children grew up to exceed their parent’s standard of living.


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“People talked about the American dream not even as having a higher standard of living than their parents but perhaps even doubling the standard of living of one’s parents,” said Friedman.

The percentage of children that could be expected to do better economically than their parents fell steadily over the next forty years, “So that by the time I was born in 1980, it was literally no better than a coin flip whether children would have a higher standard of living than their parents did.”

Here is Friedman’s entire presentation, which goes into much deeper detail and even offers some intriguing ideas on how to begin fixing this situation.

Addressing income inequality and decreasing social mobility falls to local leadership, said Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza. “The leadership on this issue… is not coming from Washington, and it’s… very difficult for it to come from the state level,” said Elorza. “So I think civic and municipal leaders have to play a role.”

“I talk to my colleague mayors throughout the country on a regular basis and while we will all say that social and economic mobility is a great challenge and great concern in our communities, being realistic, every mayor will also tell you that we simply don’t know how our cities fare,” said Elorza. “We don’t know how we fare now, to how we did previously, and we also don’t know how we fare now compared to how other cities are faring now.”

Friedman’s research, said Elorza, is very helpful in that regard. Here are all of Elorza’s comments:

The forum ended with questions from Paxson and from the audience.


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Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for half a decade. Uprise RI is his new project, and he's doing all he can to make it essential reading. atomicsteve@gmail.com