By: Abraham Cho
The New York Times recently ran a fascinating article highlighting the relationship between income mobility and what they aptly described as “the economic layout” of a city. Citing a major new study, they found that “All else being equal, upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods.” The physical segregation of lower income households hinders income mobility.
And while the article rightly highlights the importance of physical geography and proximity, I couldn’t help but notice the critical—and perhaps more fundamental—role that social proximity played. The author acknowledges that while geography plays a surprisingly important role, “Income mobility was also higher in areas with more two-parent households, better elementary schools and high schools, and more civic engagement, including membership in religious and community groups.” In short, the reason that geography matters is because it has the power either to facilitate or hinder ones access to important social resources, like education, family support and the connections and networks of broader communities. Mixed income neighborhoods help remove this geographical barrier that denies some access to these important social resources.
But removing geographical barriers alone isn’t enough. If the key to income mobility is access to social resources, then one must also address the social barriers that can keep classes apart. Are there institutions in our neighborhoods that can serve as natural places for meaningful relationships to be built across these differences? Institutions like public schools, sports leagues and community boards can certainly serve in this capacity to a degree. And yet, it seems to me that churches (and other houses of worship) are uniquely positioned to create new social environments that make this access an organic possibility.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the church as an institution can transcend the class divisions of our stratified society the way the early church did. The Apostle Paul wrote in his Epistle to the Ephesians that God’s purpose for the church “was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.” (Eph 2:14-17). As far as God is concerned, the church is meant to be the mixed neighborhoodpar excellence.