Upward Mobility In America

A new, nationwide study on upward mobility shows big differences between different American cities — and some surprising reasons why.  We’ll look at the map (check out the interactive version of the map).

A map displaying upward mobility by region. Darker shades indicate lower intergenerational mobility. (Harvard University)

CLICK TO ENLARGE: A map displaying upward mobility by region. Darker shades indicate lower intergenerational mobility. Lighter colors represent areas where children from low-income families are more likely to move up in the income distribution. (Courtesy of Harvard University)

Upward mobility was central to the American Dream. The promise that no matter where you started, you had a reasonable shot at getting ahead. In recent years, that promise has faded.

Overall, the U.S. has fallen behind other developed countries as the land of opportunity for all. But a huge, new study reveals that a lot depends on where you live within the U.S.

If you start poor in San Francisco, Salt Lake City, New York, Boston, Houston, you’ve got a decent chance to rise. But if it’s Atlanta? Charlotte? Memphis? South Bend? A whole lot harder.

This hour, On Point: The map of American mobility.

— Tom Ashbrook


David Leonhardt, Washington bureau chief for The New York Times. (@DLeonhardt)

Raj Chetty, professor of economics at Harvard University and co-director of the Public Economics group at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He’s one of the authors of “The Economic Impacts of Tax Expenditures Evidence from Spatial Variation Across the U.S.,” a new study on income mobility in the United States.

Isabel Sawhill, senior fellow for Economic Studies and Co-Director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution. Co-author of “Creating an Opportunity Society” and “One Percent for the Kids: New Policies, Brighter Futures for America’s Children.” (@isawhill)

Interactive Map

The New York Times: In Climbing Income Ladder, Location Matters

Interview Highlights

Raj Chetty on the surprising results:

We weren’t expecting such a great deal of heterogeneity across the U.S. There’s so much variation in the degree of mobility across cities … Often the question people ask is “Is the U.S. still the land of opportunity?” And what we’re finding here is maybe that’s not the right question to be asking. There are some places that are “lands of opportunity,” if you like, and there are other places that are probably better described as “lands of persistent inequality” within the United States. So it really matters where you live.

Chetty on smaller towns showing more mobility:

We find that some of the highest mobility places in America are smaller towns rather than the biggest cities … What’s happening in those communities is they’re producing these very successful kids, even kids frmo low-income families. And they end up leaving those communities typically, moving to bigger cities and being very successful in the broader American economy. But they’re being produced in these smaller towns.

Chetty on residential segregation, education and two-parent households:

Take a place like Atlanta … it’s a very residentially segregated city, where low-income people are living in neighborhoods  that are quite separted physically from higher income. And the public transportation’s not great. And so that was a common characteristic that we found of many places of low rates of upward mobility.

TOM: Meaning that people end up living in kind of sealed areas of poverty. It’s not interwoven with affluence, hard to get on that train, hard to get where the jobs are potentially.

That’s potentially one mechanism. But, again, there are other potential mechanisms.

So, for example, the quality of schools for low-income kids is likely to be higher in a place where they’re living in neighborhoods integrated with higher income families because there’s going to be more funding for the schools, smaller classrooms, better teachers. And we have evidence from other work that that kidn of thing really matters for kids’ outcomes.

Areas with more two-parent households have higher rates of upward mobility. But a very important point to keep in mind is even for kids from married families from two-parent households, rates of upward mobiltiy are lower if they live in areas with high single-parent rates. So this is not just saying that kids from single-parent families have lower outcomes, which we know is the case, but rather it’s something about the community as well.

From Tom’s Reading List

Salon: Upward mobility Is A Lot Easier In Some Cities: “A major new study by academic economists show that it’s still possible to get ahead in America but a great deal depends on where you’re trying to do it. As is the case with many socio-economic indicators, the northeast, and mountain and ocean west come out shining while the southeast and rustbelt lag behind.”

National Review: Upward Mobility Across U.S. Metropolitan Regions: “Leonhardt observes, some U.S. regions, like the Pittsburgh (2.4 million), Seattle (3.5 million), and Salt Lake City (969,000) metropolitan areas, have levels of upward mobility for the poor comparable to those that obtain in countries like Denmark (5.6 million) and Norway (4.9 million), while the Atlanta (5.5 million) and Memphis (1.3 million) metropolitan areas have levels of upward mobility that would be among the lowest among affluent countries.”

Delarware Online: Will: Upward Mobility Necessary To Develop Human Capital: “Today, the dominant distinction defining socioeconomic class is between those with and without college degrees. Graduates earn 70 percent more than those with only high school diplomas. In 1980, the difference was just 30 percent.”


Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
Dec 1, 2015
Bethany Winder, a nurse who lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., plants a sign in support of Planned Parenthood just south of its clinic as police investigators gather evidence near the scene of Friday's shooting at the clinic Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015, in northwest Colorado Springs. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Women’s health, American politics and gun violence after the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting.

Dec 1, 2015
In this 2010 file photo, Dr. Tom and Ann Earley work a Salvation Army kettle with their dog, Bocce, in an Atlanta, GA-area shopping center. (Flickr / Vicki DeLoach)

On #GivingTuesday, we’ll explore the trends in giving now from crowd sourcing to big charities and beyond.

Nov 30, 2015
Shoppers walks in front of a holiday display Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, in San Francisco.(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

From Black Friday to Cyber Monday and beyond, we’ll add up the dollars and trends and bargains of the 2015 holiday shopping season.

Nov 30, 2015
United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres, center left, Minister of the Environment of Peru and COP20 President Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, center right, and French Foreign Affairs Minister and COP 21 President Laurent Fabius, center, pose for photographers during a press visit to the COP21, Paris Climate Conference, site, in Le Bourget, north of Paris, France, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

World leaders converge in Paris for the big climate talks. We’ll look at what it will take to get a global climate agreement.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
Fresh Ideas For Your Thanksgiving: Recipes
Wednesday, Nov 25, 2015

Did our Thanksgiving 2016 episode make you hungry? Good news — we’ve got recipes right here.

More »
Karl Rove Still Won’t Get Involved In The 2016 G.O.P. Primary
Tuesday, Nov 24, 2015

Karl Rove may say he’s not endorsing or getting involved in the 2016 G.O.P. presidential primary, but that won’t stop from offering advice on how to beat Republican front runner Donald Trump.

More »
Roger Cohen And Barry Posen On ISIS
Monday, Nov 23, 2015

A brief, but illustrative exchange between Barry Posen and Roger Cohen during our conversation on ISIS today.

More »