As the fourth person to wear this name in my family, I've always felt a closeness to the family stories I heard growing up. About how my father, grandfather, and great grandfather sacrificed to provide their children with opportunities they never had against the backdrop of the Deep South. Each battled poverty, segregation, and racism to build businesses and send their children to better—white—schools. In exchange for their sacrifice, they only asked that their children continue to build on their success and never give ground.
I was born in Kansas City, Missouri, to a single mother from Valdosta, Georgia. My mom had planned to return to the South but decided to stay in Kansas City so we could have a better life. I didn't grow up around my cousins, aunties, and grandparents. In Kansas City, it was just the two of us. During the summertime, I went to my godmother's house to play with my godbrothers and sisters. But I didn't have people around me who were family.
In places like Kansas City and Valdosta, the appearance of COVID-19 has only exaggerated the growing inequality we see between different localities. The most recent data from the CDC suggests that black people account for 34 percent of confirmed cases while representing only 13 percent of the total U.S. population. In Louisiana alone, black people make up 32 percent of the state's population but 70 percent of its COVID-19 deaths.
Those numbers really jump out to me because my family is originally from the Deep South. My mother grew up living with my great grandparents, who were sharecroppers, and worked in the fields with our family. She doesn't talk about it, but life for her was tough. I think it's why she left. Some may call ending up in Kansas City luck. All I know is that my life would have looked very different had we not moved to the northern Kansas City suburb of Liberty in the mid-'90s.
All of a sudden, I was surrounded by working-class white people. When I was 13 years old, a new middle school opened on the south side of town, and due to local politics, the district revised its maps. Even though my original school was within walking distance across the street, I ended up having to ride the bus for several miles every day to South Valley Middle School.
My first two years at South Valley were uncomfortable. I was the only person of color in my classes, and I certainly felt like I stuck out. Kids made racist comments and at the time, even the name of the school sounded white to me. I had no white friends, and I remember wishing for another black person to be in my class. My only reprieve came at lunch when I sat at the "black" table. There were so few of us that we could barely fill an entire lunch table. I hated it.
As time passed, I learned a few key lessons: How to talk to white people, how to be comfortable around white people, and how to relate to white people. Looking back, some of the kids were racist, but most were not. To survive, I adapted and was soon motivated to do just as well—if not better—than the people around me. I began to get good grades. I became social and was elected to the student council. This period of my life was pivotal in making me who I am today. I lost my brother and best friend to car accidents, forcing me to mature quickly. By the time the district's schools reunited, I found myself with thousands of friends. I knew the kids from both sides of town and mingled freely, while many of my peers remained siloed.
I carried these lessons into college, which helped me adapt and build close relationships with my professors and classmates. I discovered economics and decided I wanted to go to graduate school. My struggles weren't all behind me, however. At times, I struggled with my health but persevered. I also faced challenges academically—en route to my degree, I dropped out of college four times and transferred three times.
Recognizing my family's sacrifice, I have stayed motivated to move my family up the economic ladder and provide my future children with opportunities and experiences that weren't available to me. To do so requires an understanding of how the world works. For me, no field offers a better understanding of the world than economics. Studying upward mobility and intergenerational outcomes are in line with my life's focus. I recognize how pivotal my mom's move out of the South was for my future. This decision has provided me with opportunities and experiences I couldn't have had growing up in my family's Georgia home. It's easy to juxtapose my life with that of my family there. I have had more opportunities simply because of where I was raised.
My Zip Code Economy
We've seen these effects in our own work with Zip Code Economies, and others are jumping into this field of study as well. Raj Chetty, the William A. Ackman Professor of Public Economics at Harvard University, is a researcher I admire greatly. His findings illustrate the phenomenon I experienced. Using the administrative records of 40 million children and their parents, he found that intergenerational mobility, better understood as the change in a family's social position between generations, varies substantially across the United States. Areas with high upward mobility had key characteristics including less residential segregation, less income inequality, and better schools (Chetty et al. 2014). This research interests me because it provides data that empirically shows what I already know.
Less than five percent of black children currently grow up in environments fostering upward mobility. In 99 percent of neighborhoods in the United States, black boys have lower incomes in adulthood than white boys when controlling for parental income (Chetty et al. 2020). It can't be denied—where we grow up matters.
Raj Chetty uses data to provide clear cut evidence that the neighborhood in which you grow up is a statistically significant determinant of outcomes. Notably, his research is accessible to anyone who is interested in learning more. Chetty and his co-authors created the Opportunity Atlas, which maps income by area. Anyone can use it to find high opportunity areas. Several pilot programs are studying the effects of moving people to opportunities using housing vouchers. If low-income households can relocate to high opportunity areas, the lifetime effects could be profound.
The Numbers Support the Story
In economics, you develop a hypothesis, collect data, and see what it says. If the data matches the anecdotal evidence, you are on to something. This process transforms the implicit to empirical. That's why research is so important. Less inequality in my Missouri school district allowed a student like me to start on a more level playing field than my cousins in Georgia.
I've learned that working hard isn't enough to get ahead the vast majority of people—it takes a little luck in your environment. It requires mentorship and guidance. For many families, parents can show and tell the next generation precisely what they need to do to be successful. In my experience, however, many people don't have that sort of guidance. Luck plays an all too important role in the economic outcomes of the lower class. This drives me in my professional career. As our nation becomes more segmented and stratified economically, I want to do work that challenges elitism and find ways to provide opportunities for more people.
Though outcomes are an essential metric, the thing that matters to me is opportunity. If someone chooses to work hard, they should have a chance to be rewarded for their efforts. Unfortunately, this doesn't prove to be the case for many Americans. For this group, the research shows lifetime outcomes are almost always determined at birth. Another way to think of it is what Warren Buffet calls the ovarian lottery.
The same factors that impede the upward intergenerational mobility of black people are also responsible for poorer health outcomes in the face of coronavirus. Systemic inequality, housing disparities and residential segregation contribute to inability to social distance, inadequate access to healthcare and higher burden of serious underlying medical conditions. These realities are not new, but they are illuminated by the current pandemic.
The SF Fed is trying to tackle these problems, and that is due in no small part to the leadership of our president, Mary Daly. She comes from a more diverse background and sees the value in addressing not only economic issues but also social problems (like inequality) that are at the foundation of these issues. At the SF Fed, it's not all about monetary policy.
We are putting our money where our mouth is at the SF Fed. When I first started working at the Bank, I had no idea I would be participating in community engagement, leading bank tours, and speaking to students of color who come to visit. Of all that I've done while here, my time spent with high school and college students is the most rewarding. I've been fortunate and received a lot of help along the way, so I want to pay it forward.
Now my current stint as a research associate is winding down as I prepare to head to grad school at NYU. Thank you for taking the time to read my story—this subject is important and can only be addressed if we're willing to have the conversation.
Chetty, Raj, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, and Emmanuel Saez. "Where is the land of opportunity? The geography of intergenerational mobility in the United States." The Quarterly Journal of Economics 129, no. 4 (2014): 1553-1623.
Chetty, Raj, Nathaniel Hendren, Maggie R. Jones, and Sonya R. Porter. "Race and economic opportunity in the United States: An intergenerational perspective." The Quarterly Journal of Economics 135, no. 2 (2020): 711-783.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups