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Can Chicago's Poorest 'Pull Themselves Up By Their Bootstraps'?

By Kelly Bauer | February 3, 2017 5:49am
 Cook County is among the worst places to live if you want a child to
Cook County is among the worst places to live if you want a child to "get ahead."
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DOWNTOWN — "Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps" is not only a deeply flawed solution to poverty, it's also nearly impossible to do in Chicago, a recent study found.

In the "Equality of Opportunity Project," Stanford professor Raj Chetty looked at income mobility among low-income families and how it varies depending on where one grows up. Chetty attempted to determine how likely children from low-those families are to move up in economic status when they become adults.

According to Chetty's research, Chicago kids have just a 6 percent chance of moving from the bottom fifth — with parents making $10,000 a year or less — to the top fifth, or a family income of more than $70,000 by the age of 30. According to a New York Times analysis of Chetty's work, Chicago is among the worst big cities for upward mobility. 

Chetty's data shows children from low-income families in Cook County are expected to make 13.3 percent less than the average household income of their peers once they're 26 years old. That means that while the average household income at 26 is $26,000, low-income kids from Cook County are expected to make just $22,542.

Breaking it down by gender, the county's boys will make 13.7 percent less, while girls will make 12.8 percent less than the average household income.

That means Cook County is fifth-worst for income mobility among the country's 100 biggest counties.

Here's a look at the worst of the biggest counties and how kids' future incomes are expected to be impacted by growing up in them:

Rank County State All Kids Boys Girls
95 Frenso California -12.9% -16.8% -8.5%
96 Cook Illinois -13.3% -13.7% -12.8%
97 Orange Florida -13.5% -14.6% -12%
98 Hillsborough Florida -13.5% -16.3% -10.2%
99 Mecklenburg North Carolina -13.8% -12.8% -14.7%
100 Baltimore City Maryland -17.3% -27.9% -5.4%

Source: Equality of Opportunity Project

That research was shared in a recent podcast from On The Media, which took a deep dive into poverty myths and the origin of the notion that poor people need only "lift themselves up by their bootstraps" to succeed.

Researchers looked at more than 5 million families from 1996 through 2012 and published the results last year.

Racial and income segregation can keep Chicago's kids from being able to go to quality schools that prepare them for college, said Mary Pattillo, a sociology professor at Northwestern University. That hurts income mobility because college-educated people make more than those who didn't go to college, Pattillo said.

Kayla Eubanks, 18, is familiar with the struggle.  An Englewood resident with dreams of becoming a neurosurgeon, her parents have always told her "being educated is the best thing that you can be." But her neighborhood high school wasn't equipped to  get her into the "prestigious college" she dreamed of, Eubanks said.

So Eubanks took it upon herself to apply to Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep, a selective-enrollment school some 9 miles away in Roseleand, after graduating from eighth grade. She had to take the bus because her mom couldn't drive her to and from school, Eubanks said, and to protect herself when walking home at night she'd walk in the middle of the street instead of on sidewalks or near lots and buildings where someone could jump out at her.

And even though Eubanks was going to a top-tier school, she didn't have a computer at home to do her assignments. She had to finish work on her phone if she didn't complete it at school, she said, or go to the library.

There were times when she'd come home and hear gunshots outside.

Eubanks doesn't think she was at a "huge disadvantage" compared to others because she is particularly independent and has a large, supportive family. Now a college freshman, she earned a four-year scholarship to New York University and is studying to become a doctor. She hopes to one day open a clinic in Chicago.

Some kids from low-income areas can take initiative and push themselves, Eubanks said. She's proud of her independence and the fact that she applied for colleges and scholarships on her own, but she realizes that not all kids are as motivated as she is or have the support system that she does.

Some parents don't want their kids to leave the neighborhood school. North Side schools get more money than South Side schools, and students in poor areas don't have the kinds of opportunities others do, Eubanks said, noting that "plays a role in how kids end up."

Another issue with income mobility: Chicago is a "world-class city," Pattillo said, but it hasn't invested in high-income growth industries such as technology and medical research.

"Obviously, if the jobs aren't there, then people can't earn those kinds of high incomes," Pattillo said. "The deep nature of both racial and income segregation in Chicago is one of the things that underlies this lack of access to good schools and to other kinds of opportunities that facilitate upward mobility.

"It does so both by keeping people living away from those opportunities, but also by undermining collective empathy for all kinds of neighborhoods so that we might invest in all kinds of neighborhoods.”

Income segregation also has been growing, Pattillo said, while segregation between white and black people has been declining "very, very slowly."

Poor children in Chicago struggle to get ahead because many don't have the same resources and support other kids do, Pattillo said. Those who suggest poor families or individuals only need to work harder might not recognize all the ways they were helped so they could succeed.

“We have a dominant mythology in the United States of individual effort yields individual success. We don’t talk about systems, we don’t talk about structures," Pattillo said. "Instead, we talk about hard work and self-sacrifice. And so our dominant ideology privileges the individual effort and obscures the structural and systemic both barriers and springboards that exist in the world.”

An "invisible privilege" people take for granted is that they or their children go to schools where teachers have high expectations of students and have such basic necessities as textbooks, Pattillo said.

That's not always true for children from low-income families or children of color, Pattillo said, adding that teachers often have lower expectations for students of color. That leads to a "self-fulfilling prophecy" of those students not aiming as high or achieving as much as their better-off peers, Pattillo said.

Other "invisible privileges," Pattillo said, include: Parents or friends who have careers create networks that can help kids with internships or jobs. A child who has a college-educated parent means kids have someone they know who has taken the ACT or SAT and gone through the college admissions process, unlike first-generation students. Wealthier families are more likely to be able to take on debt, and those with a home can take out a second mortgage to help pay for college so a child doesn't face as much debt. 

“I think people who proffer a ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ motto likely don’t see all of the supports and invisible opportunities and privileges that they themselves had when they assume they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps," Pattillo said. “Few of us have the tenacity, creativity, resilience, psychological composition to do so. 

"I think most people who have that as their solution are blind to the ways that they themselves did not pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” she said.

Instead, school funding needs to be revamped so poor students and schools receive the resources they need to "make up for the deficits in family funding," Pattillo said. But there are other support systems, like health care, that need to be looked at, Pattillo said. There is a "lot of information" about how to help poor people, Pattillo said, but people need "political will" to make change happen.

“The question is really just our political will — if we’re going to support families that can’t do this on their own,” Pattillo said. “I think we blame poor people for their poverty despite the fact that we thrive on an economy that creates jobs that pay low wages.

"That kind of blaming of poor people is what keeps us from investing in the kinds of supports that would be necessary for the next generation of children to do better than their parents.”