Location Determines Mobility

Illinois funds its public school system through property taxes. That’s lead to a system that many decry as unfair, as rich suburbs are able to provide full-featured educations from top-tier teachers assisted by the latest technology in well-maintained facilities. Conversely, it means those in poorer neighborhoods, including many in Chicago, can afford none of those things because there isn’t the tax income to support them. Changes to this system are usually advocated by reformers in Chicago as well as downstate but rejected by those unwilling to sacrifice their own standing for the good of others.

A new report by the Economic Innovation Group and shared by Axios doesn’t address Illinois’ school funding disparity specifically. But when you look at the map of income distribution and see that job creation and growth is happening largely in the same sort of areas that enjoy quality education systems, it’s hard not to draw the correlation.

What the map shows is that where you are born continues to be a major determining factor in how well you do both in school and in life. If you’re born in a “distressed” community, your opportunities for upward mobility are limited. New businesses aren’t starting there and existing ones aren’t growing there.

Many politicians, when faced with stats like this, will shrug their shoulders and say people should move if they want to be where the jobs are. That simplistic mindset overlooks several factors making such moves all but impossible:

  • The loss of support networks: If you’re a young family, you may rely on friends or family for childcare or other support. If you’re older, your kids may be entrenched school. whatever the case, substantial structural underpinnings in life would be torn out by a move.
  • Too expensive to move: Young people are drowning in student debt already, so the thousands of dollars required to move are simply inaccessible. Someone who was laid off five years and subsisting on part-time retail work is also in no position to take on that expense.
  • Uncertainty: If you’re moving because of the potential of a job, you’re taking a big risk on the unknown. If you’ve already lined up a job, you’re hoping it goes well and this doesn’t look like a huge mistake in six months, after you’ve separated yourself from your support network.
  • Too expensive to live: Unless someone has won the sweepstakes and secured lucrative work with a huge salary, there’s no way someone can move from Selma, AL to San Francisco, CA or New York, NY.

Let’s put to the side the canard that any child in this country can for up to be as successful as they want to be. It might have been true decades ago, but entrenchment of jobs in specific areas and the neglect of vast swaths of the populace have made it a lie, one clung to largely by the powerful who see the poor as leeches waiting for handouts.

That’s exactly the sort of thinking on display in comments by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. When talking about the elimination of protections for students scammed by for-profit colleges, she said, “Under the previous rules, all one had to do was raise his or her hands to be entitled to so-called free money.

It’s hard to believe that when you see for-profit colleges account for 35% of all student loan defaults there isn’t something institutionally wrong with the practices of those businesses. They attract new students with the promise of an education that will help them advance but can’t deliver on that promise.

DeVos thinks the people who have filed for protections – which don’t eliminate debt and still leave the student hanging without a degree and barrels of wasted money – are just looking for handouts. That’s not surprising when you consider for-profit college students tend to be black, female and at a low-income level currently. Just the sort of people those like DeVos, who came from a privileged family, want to keep in their place by denying them access to education, voting booths, healthcare and other opportunities to better themselves.

It’s not free money people are looking for, just the opportunity to provide for their families. Between the concentration of jobs in few outrageously expensive locations and the active elimination of protections against abuse by private corporations, that’s getting harder by the day.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.