Dismantling Barriers to Socioeconomic Mobility

Pam Sornson, JD

Pam Sornson, JD

May 2, 2023

Research suggests that stagnant socioeconomic mobility (SM) levels negatively impact an entire society, not just its marginalized population(s). Communities with infrastructures that support equity and equality across all population segments – and therefore have higher SM capacities – do better economically than those that do not. Regions with disparate and unfair socioeconomic outcomes within social classes, and low correlating SM rates as a result, can learn from their more prosperous neighbors how to reverse that course while improving the overarching economic situation for everyone.


Begin with Policy …

All too often, reduced SM levels result from biased and discriminatory legislation and rule-making. All communities exist through a system of legislated policies and procedures that address (or should address) the needs of everyone. In too many instances, however, those policies were crafted and implemented to further the goals of smaller subgroups within the community, thereby leaving the other subgroups unsupported. This group of unfair policies creates and perpetuates the cultural groundwork that impedes social and economic growth and limits the opportunities to achieve SM.

To repair the injustices caused by those obsolete policy patterns, today’s forward-looking leaders can identify how their constituents are affected by the existing regulatory infrastructure. In many cases, they’ll find that their current standards fail to address the fundamental elements of ‘social welfare’ for all their citizenry: security, equity, inclusion, and a fair distribution of resources. Instead, they may discover that current policy often intentionally limits opportunities for those in some classes to attain the resources available to other community members.

Access to adequate and equitable public transportation is one way previous governments have limited their citizen’s options. In one community, a plush and comfortable bus gets prioritized routing to speed wealthy patrons to their destination. Those who can’t afford the cost, however, must endure exposed bus stops, plastic seats, and the interminable dreariness of public traffic patterns.

Finding adequate housing is also a challenge for people with fewer resources. Discriminatory behaviors within the housing industry often leave people of color, the differently abled, or ethnically diverse without appropriate or desirable options. In many communities, the biases aren’t so much written as they are demonstrated in behaviors that direct non-white ethnicities to non-white neighborhoods, as an example.

Obtaining a high-quality education is also more challenging for some members of a community than it is for other members. Despite years of social debate and advocacy, the American educational system is one of the most inequitable systems in the industrialized world, where social status – not intelligence, talent, or skill – determines the quality and availability of education.

Remaking policies and their associated practices to reflect the community’s commitment to fairness will move toward righting the existing injustices while also boosting the economic capacity of all – not just some – of its residents.


 … Focused on Target Populations

To be most effective, any policy changes must be directed at the populations they are intended to benefit, using strategies to achieve the best outcomes for those public investments. These changes may (and will probably) require shifting public funding away from some programs (such as the plush bus system noted above, which was publicly funded) and toward others that provide service and support to marginalized community members.

Research from the Brookings Institute offers suggestions for policymakers to help guide them to a fairer community and a brighter economic future, with a focus on two pivotal public resources: housing and education.


A safe and sound home is the best foundation for the growth of any person, but America’s housing laws do not ensure that all citizens have access to this critical resource. Home rental rates and purchase prices are often out of reach for a sizeable percentage of the community, leaving them with no option but to seek more ‘affordable’ housing. However, in far too many communities today, ‘affordable housing’ is only available in inhospitable areas that lack adequate transportation, food, and safety services.

Consequently, Brookings suggests civic leaders reinvigorate their housing laws by incorporating these factors:

Use housing vouchers to target both populations and housing options. Use policy and practice to create ‘mixed-income’ communities with families from a range of economic classes.

Develop affordable housing options across the region, not just in small sections of the city.

Review and reform housing laws that prevent those who need housing from attaining it. Zoning restrictions, in particular, have played a significant role in keeping minority populations out of specified communities.

Enforce housing rules to ensure that they actually and effectively protect their intended beneficiaries. The number of laws passed that require the application of ‘fair and equal’ housing policies is irrelevant if they are not enforced or enforceable.


The depth and breadth of educational disparities across the United States are alarming, as study after study reveals that students of color – in almost all regions – receive significantly fewer educational resources at all levels than their white counterparts. Long-established school systems continue to execute policies that provide different educational assets to whites than to non-whites, and those decisions effectively limit the economic capacities of the community as a whole.

Thirty years of research demonstrates that four factors directly influence student achievement and that white learners are much more likely to receive these factors than their non-white classmates:

smaller schools (300-500 students is optimal),

smaller class sizes,

a challenging curriculum,

and highly qualified teachers.

Despite the evidence connecting these influences to higher educational achievements, school systems that are predominantly for learners of color:

are much larger, on average, with some hosting as many as 3,000 students,

have class sizes that are 15 times larger than those found in white schools, and

accept significantly lower quality standards for both curricula and teachers.

Even integrated schools have a history of bias by directing non-white learners to lower-track classes with higher student/teacher ratios and less qualified educators.


The politically manufactured barriers in most of America’s communities continue to perpetuate the bias and prejudice that inhibits SM for marginalized people. As the country recovers from the recent global health crisis, it has an opportunity to reevaluate the negative impacts of its foundational civic platforms. Revising those to build in diversity and open opportunities for all residents can raise the economic value of the whole community, meet the needs of today, and lay the foundation for a more profitable – for all – tomorrow.


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