Opportunity barriers for Chattanooga youth

A child’s prospects of earning more than his or her parents have fallen 40 percent over the past half-century, according to data from the Equality of Opportunity Project.

Barriers to economic mobility are most acute in the South, where segregation, income inequality, local school quality, and family structure strongly correlate with geographical differences in upward mobility.

For example, a child who grows up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with parents who earn in the 10th percentile ends up, on average, in the 33rd percentile. Approximately 6 percent move from the bottom quintile to the top.

Upward Mobility in the 50 Biggest U.S. Cities — The Top 5 and Bottom 5
Rank City Odds of Reaching Top 5th Starting from Bottom 5th
1San Jose, CA12.90%
2San Francisco, CA12.20%
3Washington, D.C.11.00%
4Seattle, WA10.90%
5Salt Lake City, UT10.80%
46Indianapolis, IN4.90%
47Dayton, OH4.90%
48Atlanta, GA4.50%
49Milwaukee, WI4.50%
50Charlotte, NC4.40%
Source: Where Is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility

The Metro Ideas Project partnered with Benwood Foundation and the Network for Southern Economic Mobility Initiative to better understand the opportunity barriers young Chattanoogans face.

We conducted qualitative focus groups with youths between 15 and 25 years old to explore economic mobility in the region. We also collected information from local employers who offer entry-level positions to gauge the extent to which opportunities and challenges exist.

Our research report below is part of a larger project examining youth mobility in four Southern communities.

Report: Exploring Economic Mobility in Chattanooga Youth
PDF (2.8MB)

Focus groups

A major theme among our 31 youth focus group participants was college readiness, admission, and affordability. This is consistent with national research.

Nearly all our participants plan to attend a two- or four-year school. But paying for college—along with books, room and board, and other costs—remains a significant barrier. Even the cost of ACT tests and application fees for multiple schools can be challenging.

Financing a college education is the principle obstacle young people face. Some students’ parents are unable or unwilling to pay for college—even when a parent’s income is high enough to block traditional financial aid. A section of students in our focus groups said that while their parents are middle class, they receive no assistance with tuition.

One student said, “Sometimes your parents are in the middle or higher class, so they can’t afford it. I mean, they can afford it, but they’re not going to pay for it.”

Tennessee offers HOPE scholarships for students attending four-year universities and Tennessee Promise for those attending two-year institutions. However, these funds may only be used in state. Those schools may not offer an advanced curriculum in a student’s preferred subject.

“I wanted to go to my dream school of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, but if I pay in Tennessee, I don’t have to pay anything for college,” a Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy senior said.

Other students choose to remain close to home so they can live with their parents.

“I wanted to get as far away from home as possible, but again, I had to think practically and just financially,” a Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences senior said. “I knew my dad wasn’t going to pay for all that, so it was either full ride or nothing. So I started focusing more on schools that are closer to home.”

Students also frequently voiced how overcome they are balancing educational, work, and extracurricular activities. Some had to assist their families with bills and other living expenses. A majority of focus group participants are required to work minimum-wage jobs throughout the school year. Some contribute their wages for household costs, as well as other expenses like cellphones, transportation, and school fees.

Participants often face difficulties breaking through closed social networks, hampering their ability to gain employment. This exchange occurred during one focus group:

“I still don’t think there’s still that much for young people here,” said an MTSU and East Hamilton High School graduate. “Like, I get what [another participant] is saying that maybe we’re not connected to the right people, but the fact [is] that I went to school with these people. That fact [is] that I was one of those people even in college.”

A fellow graduate replied, “Even if you were surrounded by these people, they still might not invite you to [join in], not saying that they didn’t. But they might not include you in certain things because you’re black. And you might feel like you’re in it, but you’re not really in it.”


We collected information from 12 employers who provide entry-level jobs across several economic sectors. These interviews and surveys focused on the application process, training, and other factors related to new hires.

None of these companies require a college degree for entry-level jobs, but some positions favor applicants with a college education. Two of the companies, a private utility company and a government employer, require a high school degree. Most companies provide paid training for these jobs.

Company representatives told us many younger applicants lack the soft skills needed for a professional environment. The owner of a local janitorial company said, “There are certain things that are not necessarily being taught out there right now—how to dress for an interview, how to show up on time, and how important it is to be punctual.”

Background checks and drug testing often screen out prospective hires. The only companies that do not perform drug testing are small, new companies in the service industry. An arrest record, especially one showing a felony, would prevent someone from getting a job with nearly all the companies we interviewed. The one exception is a food manufacturer, which is more open to working with employees who have criminal backgrounds.

These entry-level jobs have a wide range of starting wages. Service sector jobs like fast food and retail offer faster promotional paths, but they pay the least and exhibit higher turnover rates. Manufacturing positions have more stable schedules, higher starting salaries, and better benefits. Traditional white-collar jobs tend to pay the highest for entry-level positions.

There is a large correlation between wages and turnover rates for entry-level positions. Higher-paying jobs generally have lower turnover rates. The manufacturing and administrative companies have the lowest turnover rates of the companies we interviewed. Service industry jobs have the highest turnover.

Promotions vary from company to company. There seems to be a gap in promotion rates from different demographics. The companies we talked to have a strong balance of male and female employees. However, a large disparity persists between genders when it comes to promotions to higher-paying jobs. Several companies mentioned outreach efforts and nonprofit partnerships to put job opportunities in front of more female and minority applicants.


Like much of the South and Midwest, Chattanooga struggles with issues of economic mobility. Young people of color in particular face opportunity barriers, including high levels of income inequality, unequal access to educational and work opportunities, and inadequate investments in children and certain geographic areas.

While there are entry-level positions in Chattanooga, they are not all easily accessible. Open job positions are highly dependent on turnover rates, which coincide with low pay and limited mobility.

For those who get into college, finances restrict where they can attend, time devoted to their studies, and where they live. Young people are forced to give up on schools that are best suited for their interests and needs in favor of in-state schools with lower tuition, Tennessee-based scholarships, and a lower cost of living if they continue living with their parents.

We recommend evidence-based policies that improve economic opportunities for many Americans currently left behind.

  • Reduce segregation in neighborhoods and schools. This can be accomplished through a mix of state and local policy initiatives as well as a robust effort at the district level to create more integrated schools.
  • Expand awareness of existing career opportunities, college alternatives, and ladders into the middle class. Many youth are not aware of their options, including two-year degrees, certifications, and professional careers that do not require a traditional four-year degree.
  • Increase wages across all industries to support a stronger economy. Stagnant wages have hurt new entrants to the job market, particularly local youth that are struggling to make ends meet.
  • Reform discipline and juvenile justice practices. Black youth are far more likely to be disciplined with out-of-school suspensions and referrals to the juvenile court system than white youth are—a destructive trend that is rooted in policy.
  • Increase access to and bolster quality education at every level. From universal pre-K to robust soft skill training in secondary school, education must be a pillar of any strategy to increase upward mobility among youth.
  • Expand data collection to include youth not currently connected to institutional support or programming. Collecting candid feedback from youths not connected to support institutions will be critical to better understanding the challenges facing a wide strata of disadvantaged youth.

Further reading

Why It’s So Hard to Get Ahead in the South

Alana Semuels reports for The Atlantic: In Charlotte and other Southern cities, poor children have the lowest odds of making it to the top income bracket of kids anywhere in the country. Why?

The Economic Impact of School Suspensions

Lucia Graves, writing for The Atlantic: A recent report found that African-American girls were suspended at much higher rates than their white peers, a phenomenon that leads to lower earnings and educational attainment in the long run.

About this project

Metro Ideas Project conducted focus groups and interviews with Chattanooga youth and employers on behalf of the Network for Southern Economic Mobility Initiative in 2017.


Data and documents