Let’s talk about upward mobility—the “American Dream,” if you will. As I understand it, the American Dream is the opportunity to attain prosperity—to live a life with dignity, not only free from the oppression of hunger, persecution, disease, and war, but to have clean environment, good education, quality healthcare, livable wages and civil rights—regardless of your background. This idea—to make something of yourself with grit, hard work, and a normal amount of luck—is a wonderful, just, and quintessentially democratic idea. To many immigrants in this country, including me, this idea makes this country truly great.
Two weeks ago, I attended the 2015 Equity Summit put on by PolicyLink, a nonprofit organization in Oakland dedicated to creating sustainable communities through equitable local, state, and federal policies. On the second day, Raj Chetty, a professor of economics at Stanford University, spoke on the impact of a child’s environment on his or her prospects for upward mobility. Here, I had my “Oh s%&#” moment. Professor Chetty drew on past and recent studies to articulate the importance of early childhood development and local community development in maximizing one’s economic opportunity. He described two ways to improve upward mobility for youth in impoverished communities: 1) Help people move to “high opportunity” areas; and 2) Invest in places with low levels of opportunity.
Sitting in the audience, I realized that my younger brother and I were unknowing beneficiaries of the former policy approach—however, through no formal means. I was born in China in a time when the country was more closely associated with Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution than with Xi Jinping and breakneck economic growth. My father, through his higher education and sheer will, found our family passage to the United States. From there, my brother and I benefitted from the resources and opportunities that would otherwise have been unavailable from our parents’ home country, allowing us to live the lives we live today. Given China’s enormous population, and how difficult it was to escape China during the 1980s, I understand how lucky I and my family were to be put on a path to upward mobility. Still, something feels patently wrong about the American Dream being contingent on having rare good luck or being born into fortunate circumstances.
Professor Chetty admits that his first policy solution, moving folks in low-opportunity neighborhoods to an area of high opportunity, can only work on a small scale. And even after such a move, systematic barriers to upward mobility remain. Predominantly, in America, success stories that follow this arc are the exception, not the rule. Furthermore, we simply cannot expect to move all of those who reside in low-resource communities into areas of high opportunity—nor would we want to for the sake of preserving a community’s richness and identity. So let’s talk about the other solution: how can we replicate the successes of high opportunity areas elsewhere?
In my role as a Legal Fellow for The Greenlining Institute’s Energy team, that question follows me in every California Public Utilities Commission proceeding I join, every stakeholders’ meeting I attend, and every research memo I write. In the energy sphere, my advocacy boils down to this: We must invest in underserved communities to avoid the creation of a state with two classes of people: one with access to the benefits created by California’s progressive energy policies and one without. California leads the global race towards a carbon-neutral economy, but we simply can’t reach our lofty goals if we fail to include our communities with the greatest need.
Differences in access to resources amplify the inequities that California communities face today. If we are serious about maximizing upward mobility, increasing shared prosperity, and creating a strong middle class, we must write equity into our policies and invest intentionally in our underserved communities.