Guest column: Creating our own upward mobility

That our best and brightest have to leave the state in order to improve their earning power should be a topic of discussion for Idaho’s leaders, writes Aaron Turner.

By Aaron Turner

There has been a lot of media attention paid to “economic inequality” and “upward mobility” lately. For strict adherents to capitalist ideals, this can be viewed as class warfare or worse, communist propaganda. In my professional life, I have been trained to deconstruct systems to analyze their strengths and weaknesses. So, I wanted to deconstruct these issues of economic inequality and upward mobility based on my experiences.

The most commonly cited study about social mobility was published by the Equality of Opportunity Project. In their research, the academics ask, “Is America the land of opportunity?” They analyzed how frequently individuals from lower-income families changed their economic situation throughout their lives and established themselves in a higher-income social segment.

In eastern Idaho, there is a 10.9 percent chance someone from a lower-income family will find economic success and improve their situation. Compare that to the 2.6 percent chance someone from Memphis, Tenn. can achieve the same or the 33.1 percent chance of upward mobility for someone from northeastern North Dakota (yes, where the oil boom is underway).

I would be considered part of these upward-mobility statistics, as I have been able to improve my economic situation relative to my parents, grandparents and other Idaho forebears. But, one aspect that the Equality of Opportunity Project does not capture is very important. I had to leave Idaho to improve my economic situation. There is no way I could have improved my earning power to the degree I have by staying in Idaho for college or the first phases of my career.

I look at my fellow classmates from Skyline High School and of those who would also be considered upwardly mobile, I don’t know how many could have dramatically improved their situation by staying in Idaho. Many left to get education, business or professional experiences then returned after they had established their bona fides.

So, while we can be grateful we live in a place with relatively good prospects for improving our lot in life, the statistics are skewed by a “boomerang effect.” The economic success of those who improve their financial situation is not because of some organic capability, where we and our children can increase our earning power. Upward mobility here is based upon sending our best and brightest somewhere else and hoping they return to be close to family or enjoy the lifestyle and cost of living eastern Idaho offers.

As we look to make significant investments in Idaho, this is an important data point. We need to answer this question: “How do we create significant opportunities for upward mobility for Idahoans in Idaho?” It will require changes in educational opportunities, investments in infrastructure and, most importantly, real financial sacrifices such as increased property taxes or other funding mechanisms.

It makes sense for us to talk about these things, but who is leading us in this direction today? I believe we need new leadership to help take us there.