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Cities failing non-college workers

July 30, 2020

Non-college workers who long found refuge and economic mobility in thriving cities have seen those opportunities diminish and in turn have moved out of the areas. Although cities remain vibrant for workers with advanced degrees, “the urban skills and earnings escalator for non-college workers has lost its ability to lift workers up the income ladder,” finds David Autor in his recent research brief. The Faltering Escalator of Urban Opportunity highlights this troubling trend plaguing cities since 1980 and posits some policy prescriptions to try to combat the negative trends. Additionally, Autor cautions that the present COVID-19 crisis could exacerbate the challenges afflicting non-college workers in U.S. cities.

Autor, director of the National Bureau of Economic Research, Labor Studies Program, and co-chair of the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future, explores how the opportunity offered by urban and non-urban labor markets to college and non-college workers has changed since 1980. Noting that the polarization of work (employment has become increasingly concentrated in high-education, high-wage occupations and in low-education, low-wage occupations, at the expense of traditionally middle-skill career jobs) has been overwhelmingly concentrated in cities, Autor also shows that the deterioration in the urban wage advantage among non-college workers is even more pronounced for Blacks and Hispanics than for whites.

Two policy areas are highlighted that could help address the failure of cities to provide the economic mobility they once did. Autor posits a place-based policy that would seek to restore some of the lost earnings power of non-college workers, possibly through “setting appropriately calibrated city-specific minimum wages.” He also proposes a people-based policy in assisting families to choose neighborhoods with good earnings opportunities relative to living costs.

The present crisis however could complicate things further. With personal services such as food service, entertainment, recreation, etc. providing the impetus behind job growth among urban non-college workers over the last several decades, the effect on those jobs as work shifts out of offices and urban settings could mean even more profound changes as many of those jobs may never recover to pre-pandemic levels.

recent research, cities, education