Earlier this month, my daughter turned six months old.
Going into parenthood, I was ready for diapers, sleepless nights and spit-up. Fortunately, we have figured most of those out.
What I wasn’t prepared for is how much attention and energy I would spend thinking about my daughter’s future.
It shouldn’t have surprised me.
One of my vices is that I tend to live in the future tense. Combined with my consumption of the latest research on social capital and opportunity in the 21st century, the result is a peculiar sort of neuroticism.
Conversations after we’ve put our little one to bed often turn to an examination of the status of local education. How do local schools perform relative to state and national standards? What percentage of students can read and perform math at or above grade level? Are our schools rigorous enough? Will their curriculum prepare her for future success in higher education and a profession?
I often wonder aloud if Bakersfield is the best place to raise a child in the 21st century.
I might sound crazy but trust me – I’m not.
Opportunity in America’s post-industrial economy is concentrated in a handful of the nation’s urban clusters. As a result, the socio-cultural gulf between well-educated urban elites and the middle- and working-classes grows wider every day.
Political scientist Robert Putnam’s “Scissor Graphs,” illustrate this divergence between “most people” in America, i.e., the bottom two-thirds, and “rich people,” i.e., the top one-third (search “Robert Putnam explains ‘Scissor Graphs’” on YouTube to see Putnam explain them).
The Scissor Graphs show that through the 1960s and 1970s, the life challenges faced by Americans were relatively similar across class and education status. Since then, however, there has been a significant divergence. Rich, college educated people have fewer challenges to navigate, while most people face more, big challenges.
It doesn’t matter if you’re considering out-of-wedlock births, fatherlessness, obesity rates, financial stability, or a host of other measures, the story remains the same: if you find yourself in the top one-third, things are going relatively well. If not, it’s statistically more likely that you are on a road headed for difficulty, if not disaster.
As a result, the best way to afford your children opportunity is to be college educated and move in a social circle that includes other college educated people. It’s the network effect of having high social capital.
This isn’t just a challenge for neurotic and aspirational parents. It’s a problem for all of us.
Especially in Bakersfield.
Fewer than 22 percent of Bakersfield residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher. And, while I am not one to believe that a college degree is a prerequisite for a meaningful and fulfilling life, we cannot deny the correlation between higher education and success in the 21st century.
We cannot deny that Bakersfield is afflicted by low social capital.
Regions with low educational attainment attract industries that demand low-skilled labor and pay low wages. Job opportunities are rare for workers with college degrees and advanced training in those communities, so they must look elsewhere and leave for a region with an abundance of job opportunities that reward their education.
Amazon selected New York City and the suburbs of Washington, D.C. to host two new corporate headquarters. Each will become home to approximately 25,000 employees. The Wall Street Journal reported that the driving force behind Amazon’s decision making was the company’s ability “to recruit more of the best tech talent.” The average income for each of the 50,000 workers that will be hired is projected to be more than $100,000 per year.
At the same time, Amazon announced plans to build a massive, four-story fulfillment center just north of Bakersfield in Oildale. It’s expected to create 1,000 new jobs. The average annual wage of those jobs? $31,000.
And so the cycle continues. Areas with educated talent attract businesses looking for that talent. More opportunities attract more talent, which attract more talent-seeking businesses, which attracts more talent.
When I think of my daughter’s future, I see her leading product teams at Amazon, not stuffing packages for two-day Prime delivery.
This is why I question whether Bakersfield is the best place to raise a family.
Because while my wife and I enjoy the benefits of hometown roots, if our city cannot address its social capital deficiencies, we are a generation away from becoming a city of the stuck.
If we want to attract opportunity for our children; if we want to prevent our city from becoming the next Appalachia, we must address our low social capital.
This is the policy and civic challenge of our time.