Sunday, May 20, 2012

The economic difference between communities is more drastic than it has been in a century. How did this happen?

America’s new economic map shows growing differences, not just between people but between communities. A handful of cities with the “right” industries and a solid base of human capital keep attracting good employers and offering high wages, while those at the other extreme, cities with the “wrong” industries and a limited human capital base, are stuck with dead-end jobs and low average wages. This divide—I will call it the Great Divergence—has its origins in the 1980s, when American cities started to be increasingly defined by their residents’ levels of education. Cities with many college-educated workers started attracting even more, and cities with a less educated workforce started losing ground. Geographically, American workers are increasingly sorting along educational lines. At the same time that American communities are desegregating racially, they are becoming more segregated in terms of schooling and earnings.

Certainly any country has communities with more or less educated residents. But today the difference among communities in the United States is bigger than it has been in a century. The divergence in educational levels is causing an equally large divergence in labor productivity and therefore salaries. Workers in cities at the top of the list make about two to three times more than identical workers in cities at the bottom, and the gap keeps growing.

Cities with a high percentage of skilled workers offer high wages not just because they have many college-educated residents and these residents earn high wages. This would be interesting but hardly surprising. But something deeper is going on. A worker’s education has an effect not just on his own salary but on the entire community around him. The presence of many college-educated residents changes the local economy in profound ways, affecting both the kinds of jobs available and the productivity of every worker who lives there, including the less skilled. This results in high wages not just for skilled workers but for most workers.

The growing divergence of American communities is important not just in itself but because of what it means for American society. While the divide is first and foremost economic, it is now beginning to affect cultural identity, health, family stability, and even politics.

Over the past half century, the United States has shifted from an economy centered on producing physical goods to one centered on innovation and knowledge. Jobs in the innovation sector have been growing disproportionately fast. The key ingredient in these jobs is human capital, which consists of people’s skills and ingenuity. In other words, humans are the essential input—they are coming up with the new ideas. The same two forces that have decimated traditional manufacturing, globalization and technological progress, are now driving the rise of jobs in the innovation sector.

The innovation sector includes advanced manufacturing (such as designing iPhones or iPads), information technology, life sciences, medical devices, robotics, new materials, and nanotechnology. But innovation is not limited to high technology. Any job that generates new ideas and new products qualifies. There are entertainment innovators, environmental innovators, even financial innovators. What they all have in common is that they create things the world has never seen before. We tend to think of innovations as physical goods, but they can also be services—for example, new ways of reaching consumers or new ways of spending our free time. Today this is where the real money is.

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