My son will be richer than your son

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I grew up as a farm boy in Northern California, and after a bit of globe-trotting I settled into the Stockton, California area for the long-haul of university. Not once before my twentieth birthday did the phrase “economic mobility” cross the horizon of my awareness. It wasn’t something anyone in my life talked about; we just lived. I was unaware of the complexity (and often, injustice) that influenced so many seemingly rote choices growing up. And I was equally unaware of what that same complexity did to others around me, particularly those less fortunate than I.

Despite being an unspoken elephant in the room of my life (there were many),  location and mobility have a dramatic impact on the functional degrees of freedom afforded to each individual. The sad brokenness of such a reality is a lament for those who feel trapped, and a cultural & spiritual war zone for those who aren’t.

The staggering effect living in Place A compared to Place B is an important theology for those who want to say Yes and Amen to the Spirit’s nudge to GO. Where is God in the tug-of-war economics of Place A over Place B? It is a masterful weave of the enemy to suggest that, since our family is our first ministry, it is our spiritual obligation to ensure that Place B (the place we move our families to) afford more opportunity than Place A (where we grew up or got married). Often, the ones we love most advocate a false theology of place: we are culturally inbred to aspire to cleaner, safer, more manicured and better connected locales for our kids.

Growing up as a farmer and then as a missionary kid, there weren’t decisions in my life that were fueled by this quest for increased economic mobility for me or my kids – at least consciously. Yet, the truth of the matter is, because of seemingly innocuous decisions, my son will be richer than your son (at least for 78% of you).

Mind you, my upbringing would not suggest this. My career choices would not suggest this. My investment strategy would not suggest this (wait, I have an investment strategy?!) Yet my geography overwhelmingly does suggest this.

I’ve felt it in my bones, and now there is some compelling data to back it up.

In 2013 my wife and I moved with our 18-month old son and while we were pregnant with our daughter. We moved from San Joaquin County – home to my wife for over 25 years, and home to me for 9 years – to Placer County. We made the move because of our work, and we love what we do for a living.

We love Stockton. It is a place in great need of love, restoration, and the life of Jesus – and it’s a place that Jesus is actively and relentless pursuing.

We love Auburn. It is the type place most people seek out to raise kids or retire (and it, like all places, is also in great need of the life of Jesus).

Actually, what the data suggests is this: if Judah were to be raised in Stockton, he would earn an average of $3,600 less than if he were raised in Auburn.

Did you catch that? the same kid in a different geography has a different degree of economic mobility. This isn’t about race, or economic class; this is about how the physical geography we live in impacts our opportunities in the future. It is a potentially sickening twist on St. Augustine’s supposed quote: “The world is a book, and those who don’t travel read only one page.”

The economic quagmire that has been codified in our cultural DNA tells us to read more pages. It’s the only way to give our kids a better shot.

While I have always loved that quote (as one who travels), there is a dark under belly. To those looking out to the injustice of the world, we can’t help but see that those who can’t change their geography, or who aren’t allowed to change their geography are less able to make life for themselves as they would otherwise like. There is space for the justice of God to step in for healing, repriation, and restoration in this system.

And yet, perhaps more insidiously, for those of us considering a life that is obedient to King Jesus it may mean that we intentionally choose into fewer options for our kids (not just ourselves). It may mean that, while we all desire to let our kids make of life what they will, we dramatically limit what they have to choose from because we want to say Yes and Amen to where we see the Holy Spirit making the field white for harvest. And this line of thinking smacks right in the face of our moralistic therapeutic deism that we keep calling Christianity.

While it can be easier for us to make limiting decisions for ourselves as we “sacrifice for Jesus”, what about our kids? Our cultural religion aims to make an idol of our children, and would consider it sin to do anything that could limit the opportunities presented to our children. As parents we have biological wiring urging us to move our kids into more opportune environments. Can God ask us to swim again our cultural and biological bedrock in good conscious? Can he be well meaning if our kids don’t get top priority? Can we, as parents, honestly claim to love our children if they are the ones sacrificed?

For the child of equal economic opportunity as my son, but growing up in Stockton, it means that he would earn several percentage points less than my son, simply because they live 80 miles apart. Those few percentage points grow dramatically larger if you add an ocean or two in between.

In my job, I have the joy of working with dozens of families around the world who have made the bold choice to leave behind family, house, career, and a lush of economic opportunity for their children and move into some of the most spiritually (and economically) difficult places in the world. And the world won’t treat them fairly: their kids, loved dearly, will get a back-handed slap from the economic engines of the world simply because their parents (read: you) choose to obey the nudge of the Holy Spirit.

They didn’t move to try to “collect more pages of life’s proverbial book” as it were (and thereby give their kids an edge). They have made an intentional choice to read fewer pages – to plant deeply and love for a long time in one very specific place, so that Jesus will be Healer and Lover of that place.

Somehow, I think this economic foible falls short of God’s vision of our world. I can’t help but wonder what God thinks as he helps the researchers at Harvard uncover this data. I can’t help but think about my role in leading and encouraging these families through these incredibly complex and multi-generational choices. Will the cards ever not be stacked against those who yearn to obey the commission to go?


K Livingston
K Livingston
I believe in dreaming big, working hard, cheering loud, standing tall, bowing deep. All of it because I believe Jesus = life.
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