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Appreciative Inquiry on Social Mobility

A few years ago one of my colleagues in the school district I led introduced me to the term “appreciative inquiry”, which is based on the premise that we can learn more from success than we can from failure. Often in schools, as in life, we spend too much time identifying areas where we failed and try to figure out what caused those failures. By focusing instead on successes and what led to those successes it is possible to determine what policies are working and, as a by-product, the individuals in an organization who are leading the way to success.

This concept was brought to mind as I read Andrew Siddons’ heartening July NYTimes Economix report “Snapshots of Economic Mobility”, an article I got to after reading today’s equally disheartening Economix article “The Rich Get Richer Through the Recovery”.

Let me begin with the bad news from today’s article:

The top 10 percent of earners took more than half of the country’s total income in 2012, the highest level recorded since the government began collecting the relevant data a century ago, according to an updated study by the prominent economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty.

The top 1 percent took more than one-fifth of the income earned by Americans, one of the highest levels on record since 1913, when the government instituted an income tax.

The figures underscore that even after the recession the country remains in a new Gilded Age, with income as concentrated as it was in the years that preceded the Depression of the 1930s, if not more so.

The article goes on to report that during the recent recession the top 1% lost 36% of their income but gained back 31% while the bottom 99% only recovered 1% of the 12% they lost… and the result is the skewing reported above.  It also reported that the top 10% of wage earners own 90% of the stock… and, as I’ve written often in this blog, shareholders tend to look out for themselves and not the general good making it increasingly difficult for those on the bottom tiers to break into the top tiers.

The July article by Siddons profiles urban areas that experienced the greatest upward mobility over the past several decades and explains their common characteristics… and the list contains few surprises for progressives:

The authors of the new study found four factors that areas with more upward mobility tend to have in common: a large and geographically dispersed middle class; better than average schools; a high share of two-parent households; and populations engaged with religious and community organizations.

To state these characteristics in terms of previous blog posts, the communities with the best upward mobility have equity in terms of access to good schools; engaged parents; and strong community support for the well-being of its citizens. The article also provided profiles of upwardly mobile citizens from these communities that illustrated how college loans, food stamps, schooling in prisons, and social services played a vital role.

One statistic that tempers the good news: the communities with the greatest social mobility had only 25% move from the lowest 20% to the top 40%… much better than the single digit increases in many urban areas. In the end, these upwardly mobile areas prove that it is possible to pull oneself up if there is a safety net in place to help when someone is laid off, struggling to find a job, seeking additional training, or looking for a way to redeem themselves when they made a bad decision and ended up in prison. Here’s hoping that our federal and state legislators read these reports and heed their findings.



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