July 23, 2013

Down and Out in Memphis; Movin’ On Up in Salt Lake City

Comprehensive new study maps chances for social mobility

Location, location, location, goes the old adage—usually indicating that the geography of the pricey real estate you are considering buying justifies its expense.

But a comprehensive new Harvard-Berkeley study suggests that location may be even more important to the poor if they are to have a crack at rising to the middle class or beyond.

To put it simply, geography is destiny when it comes to social mobility—more so at least than tax credits for the poor, heavy taxation of the rich, the presence of universities, affordability of tuition or proximity to extreme wealth.

The researchers found that proximity to middle-class areas in particular made intergenerational upward mobility likelier; a strong K-12 school system, higher test scores and lower dropout rates also helped; and, “some of the strongest predictors of upward mobility are correlates of social capital and family structure. For instance, high upward mobility areas tended to have higher fractions of religious individuals and fewer children raised by single parents,” the study found.

In its Monday edition, The New York Times assembled the researchers’ data to create an interactive map that shows where the poorest Americans have the greatest shot at upward mobility and where they remain most stratified.

Among large American cities, a child raised in the bottom fifth in family income had the greatest chance of rising to the top fifth in Salt Lake City (11.5%), Seattle (10.4%) and Pittsburgh (10.3%). Mobility was also present in some of America’s largest metropolises such as Boston (9.8%), New York (9.7%) and Los Angeles (9.6%).

Mobility opportunities were smallest in cities of the South and industrial Midwest such as Memphis (2.6%), Atlanta (4%), Charlotte, N.C. (4.3%), Indianapolis (4.8%), Detroit (5.1%) and Columbus, Ohio (5.1%).

Apart from major cities, some of the most radically upwardly mobile areas are seen in North Dakota, such as Williston (33.1%), center of that state’s shale boom. The most radically stratified non-urban areas are scattered through the Deep South and in remotest Alaska, such as Nome (2.2%).

Using the Times’ interactive data, one can see that a child who grows up in Chicago in the 10th percentile in family income ends up on average in the 34th percentile in income, lower than someone in Dallas (35th percentile), Los Angeles (40th) or Williston, N.D. (59th)—but a better average outcome than a child from Memphis (28th), Cincinnati (32nd) or Baltimore (33rd).

The researchers emphasize that their data are correlational rather than causal.

“What is clear from this research is that there is substantial variation in the United States in the prospects for escaping poverty. There are some areas in the U.S. where a child’s chances of success do not depend heavily on his or her parents’ income. Understanding the features of these areas—and how we can improve mobility in areas that currently have lower rates of mobility—is an important question for future research that we and other social scientists are exploring,” the researchers state.

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Check out 10 Best Cities for Job Seekers on ThinkAdvisor.

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