There is increasing evidence of a decline in economic mobility in the US. Economic mobility is the American dream: wherever an individual or a family starts on the economic ladder, the opportunity is open to ascend, and for each generation to do better than the previous one.
Economic Mobility Has Halved in 40 Years.
According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), upward mobility of the sort we associate with the American Dream is declining quite rapidly. Fewer people in the lower- and middle-classes are climbing the economic ladder, according to the WEF analysis. Whereas, at the 50th income percentile, 93% of those born in the decade of the 1940’s would out-earn their parents, the equivalent number for those born in the 1980’s decade was 45%. On this reading, the expectation of upward income mobility has declined by more than half in four decades.
Why? Declining Entrepreneurship.
Why is this the case? There’s are many theories, one of which is related to parallel declines in the incidence of entrepreneurship as the engine of mobility. A study published by Northwestern Law showed that, of the wealthiest households, almost 60 percent of the top 1% are involved in entrepreneurship – defined as either self-employment or business ownership. Does wealth cause entrepreneurship or vice versa? The study’s results show that, “across the board, entrepreneurship – and in particular incorporated business ownership – is associated with the greatest upward social mobility”.
However, the problem that’s emerging today is that “the already wealthy are much more likely to avail of this mode of wealth-building than the poor”, and so entrepreneurship is powering less bottom-to-top mobility than in the past. Mobility requires both income and the access to entrepreneurial capital to generate it, and lower-income families are finding themselves separated from the capital needed to start and sustain businesses.
The case for entrepreneurship as the pathway to upward mobility for low-income families is complicated. There are high fixed entry costs, time lags, and the volatility in financial returns that are inherent to entrepreneurship, and so its relationship to wealth accumulation is intricate. The intricacies are well worth parsing out, especially given the disproportionate rate at which we observe business owners among the wealthiest Americans.
The Northwestern Law study points to a definite conclusion.
We find that entrepreneurship, and in particular incorporated business ownership, does indeed facilitate social mobility. The magnitude of this effect is sizable: spending a third of one’s career as a business owner is associated with a one-decile gain in wealth standing as compared to an otherwise similar household…….business owning households which started off poor (i.e. bottom wealth quintile) are much more likely to become wealthy than those relying solely on wage work.https://wwws.law.northwestern.edu/research-faculty/clbe/events/innovation/documents/sarada_tocoian_entrepreneurship.pdf
We Need A Resurgence In Entrepreneurship For Poor Communities And Families.
The Northwestern Law study comes to clear conclusions:
- Business ownership predicts higher wealth, and is also associated with higher wealth mobility for disadvantaged groups such as high school drop-outs
- Entrepreneurship …..is indeed a vehicle for wealth building, and perhaps the most effective one for the least affluent of households.
- In addition, the legal form of the business itself is strongly associated with outcomes. Gains from incorporated business ownership outweigh that from wage work across the board. However, unincorporated business ownership is a vehicle for upward mobility for the lower half of the wealth distribution.
A challenge to be resolved is that the positive impact of entrepreneurship and business ownership is unevenly distributed by race.
In the period covered by the Northwestern Law study, 57% of White family units owned a business at some point, whereas only 28% of African American families did. For Blacks, business ownership rates increase more dramatically with education, however they remain below those of the ethnic majority even for college graduates.
But we are making some progress, indicated by the entrepreneurship gap closing over time. The study looked at the same statistics for the parents’ generation. It appears that racial differences were even more pronounced, with only 15% of black parents having owned a business at any point. For both races, business ownership rates have increased slightly over time, mainly driven by the less educated.
EZones Are The Emerging Answer.
Dr. Dale G. Caldwell, who combines the two perspectives of an active pastor in black churches with that of his role as Executive Director of the Rothman Institute Of Innovation And Entrepreneurship at Fairleigh Dickinson University, has an answer to the dilemma of poorer families lacking access to the very institution that will help them rise, entrepreneurship. He has conceived of EZones – Entrepreneur Zones that are physically located in distressed inner cities and other economically deprived locations, and which provide an entrepreneurial ecosystem for these economically challenged communities. An ecosystem, by definition, interconnects and stimulates many people, institutions, resources, and capabilities. EZones begin by convening a group of economic actors with shared interests in creating new value in their community: existing entrepreneurial businesses, entrepreneurs eyeing start-ups, representatives of big businesses like banks who want to contribute, universities and schools in the vicinity, and influencers who can help and support. Once the shared interest in value creation is established, the next phases include business training, network building, and continuous workshopping to highlight and extend successful initiatives and add knowledge and resources. There are processes to inject and attract capital on a “pay-it-forward” principle that has the potential to establish a permanent fund. While the EZone is physically located in an identifiable geography, it is connected to the city, region, nation, and the world via technology, internet marketing, and communications, and the principles of entrepreneurial business building.
EZones have the potential to solve the problem of declining mobility and declining entrepreneurship. EZones provide access to entrepreneurship and to its key tools for success to precisely those individuals, families, and communities that can most benefit from it.