Want to save this page for later?

NextGen Magazine


Study Finds Cities Have Fewer Economic Opportunies Than Before, Especially for Black Men

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Jul 8, 2020
A recent paper from MIT has challenged the perception of cities as the "escalator of opportunity," saying that recent economic changes have hollowed out much of their middle class, and that Black men in particular have lost ground. This means that, more and more, cities are becoming places with very wealthy people in top jobs, plus a vast pool of low-wage workers who keep everything running.

The author, economics professor David Autor, noted in his paper that for years lower-income and low-education individuals have flocked to thriving cities due to job opportunities that could ultimately lead to social mobility. Yet, since the 1980s, this trend has been reversing, with these working class people leaving cities as affluent college-educated professionals move in.

"As rising automation and international trade have encroached on employment in urban production, administrative support, and clerical work, the non-college urban occupational skill gradient has diminished and ultimately disappeared," Autor writes, adding that "non-college workers in U.S. cities perform substantially less specialized and more skill-intensive work than they did decades earlier. Polarization thus reflects an unwinding of the distinctive structure of work for non-college adults in dense cities and metro areas relative to suburban and rural areas. And, as this distinctive occupational structure has receded, so has the formerly robust urban wage premium paid to non-college workers."

The paper noted that those with a bachelor's or higher have seen real wages increased by 5 to 6 percentage points more, while the opposite has happened with those less educated. Those with only some college experience have seen wages drop by 3 percentage points in the same time period; those with just a high school diploma have seen drops of 7 percentage points,; and those without a high school diploma have seen wages fall by 13 percentage points.

This effect has been even more prominent among Black and Hispanic workers, especially Black men, even if they have a college degree. These workers, despite having a college degree, are increasingly working in low-wage positions as middle-income jobs evaporate. Black women, while also seeing a similar drop in middle-income job participation, do make up a higher percentage of workers in high-wage jobs in that time period.

"These findings are consistent with a panoply of evidence that Black men are faring poorly in U.S. cities," said the paper. "Thus, for the majority of U.S. workers—but especially for minorities—cities no longer appear to offer the escalator of skills acquisition and high earnings that they provided in earlier decades."