GIS Maps a Path to Economic Mobility

While economic mobility can be variously defined, at its core it focuses on the need to increase opportunities for middle- and low-income households to achieve greater economic success. The concept of economic mobility is not new, but it has gained greater notoriety over the last decade.

According to a 2017 article in Science, “rates of absolute economic mobility had fallen from approximately 90 percent for children born in 1940 to 50 percent for children born in the 1980s. However, distributing current GDP growth more equally across income groups as in the 1940 birth cohort would reverse more than 70 percent of the decline in mobility.” That is where the modern concepts of economic mobility come into play.


It Starts with Housing

Access to affordable housing is one of the most impactful ways to create generational wealth. Lower-income households experience burdensome housing costs, which are classified by US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as constituting greater than 30 percent of household income. These households are usually left with a hurdle to economic mobility that they cannot clear.

This is one of the reasons there is greater demand from planners for zoning reform that will allow developers to provide housing opportunities that are more attainable for these households. Most walkable communities today prioritize mixed land use with medium-density residential areas near commercial, office, and public spaces.

It is preferable that walkable communities are designed so that residents don’t have to own a car to travel to their jobs, grocery stores, and parks or obtain healthcare, education, and other services. This frees residents from the financial burden of owning and maintaining a car. Creating housing opportunities that have easy access transit, employment, services, and amenities provides a strong foundation for economic mobility.


Education as an Equalizer

The National Association of Counties (NACo) noted in its 2021 economic mobility report, County Levers to Drive Economic Mobility, that education is one of the factors that helps break the cycle of poverty and inequality and fosters economic mobility in current and future generations. Those with postsecondary education credentials will likely have greater employment options and opportunities than those without. Either individuals will continue to suffer a lack of educational opportunities, further impeding their mobility, or they will leave and go where they can find the opportunities that enable them to grow. Neither option is viable for a community.

Education should also be tied to workforce development, either through separate facilities or partnerships with postsecondary education institutions. Tailoring vocational and on-the-job training services to nearby employment opportunities is an effective way to meet the needs of residents and employers.

Empowering Entrepreneurs for Prosperity

Walkable communities can provide a supportive environment for small businesses and entrepreneurship. Lower transportation costs and higher foot traffic can help local businesses thrive, leading to more job opportunities and economic growth within the community. Working with local economic development organizations (EDOs), cities can incentivize and support this type of business growth. In turn, this can help promote similar walkable communities in other parts of the city or county.

This process can also work in the other direction. Businesses can encourage walkable residential development. With a concentration of existing small businesses, nearby areas can be targeted for development into walkable communities with affordable housing. A favorable and conducive regulatory environment for small business is key. This entails reducing bureaucratic hurdles, simplifying regulations, and lowering barriers to entry, even if these steps only exist in a specific opportunity zone. This requires collaboration between the EDO, planners, community leaders, and administrators.


ArcGIS Business Analyst was used to generate an infographic providing more insight into services in the community.

A Geographic Approach to Economic Mobility

From housing to education and health-care access to business development, every facet of economic mobility is centered around or driven by location. GIS helps answer the critical questions in a city or county’s policy development, such as

The success of an economic mobility strategy requires a geographic approach. GIS provides the tools to help establish policies that are data driven rather than anecdotal ones. Cities and counties have an obligation to provide residents with an economic path forward by providing equitable access to opportunities. GIS provides the foundation for initiatives with this worthwhile goal.

About the author

Keith Cooke

Keith Cooke is the Global Industry Manager for Community Development at Esri. A graduate of Auburn University, he has been a GIS professional since 1994 and has worked for planning and community development agencies at the regional and municipal level in Alabama and North Carolina. Prior to this role, he was an account executive at Esri for 15 years working with over 100 local governments.