Williston, North Dakota, or Atlanta, Georgia? If you’re a low-income American hoping to climb the economic ladder, your chances of success depend on where you live.
A new study by researchers from Harvard University and the University of California-Berkeley shows that intergenerational economic mobility varies widely across the country. A summary of the article in the New York Times lets you explore these differences with great interactive graphics. The chance that a child raised by parents in the bottom fifth of the income distribution will climb to the top fifth when she grows up is 33 percent in Williston, 10 percent in New York City, and just 4 percent in Atlanta.
Demographic differences and regional economic factors probably explain much of this variation. Williston’s relatively high mobility, for example, is almost certainly related to the boom of the Bakken oil fields. But there are also broader commonalities among high- versus low-mobility areas. Although the researchers of this study looked only at correlation, not causation, several factors stood out. In particular, I was struck by two characteristics associated with more economic mobility: increased residential integration and better access to high-quality K–12 education.
This study doesn’t show whether greater integration or better schools are causes—or perhaps effects—of increased mobility. But other research delves further into these questions. A Century Foundation study by Heather Schwartz, for example, takes a closer look at causal relationships in the intersection of these two factors. Looking at data for students who were randomly assigned to public housing units and corresponding school zones, Schwartz found that low-income children in mixed-income neighborhoods and schools performed significantly better academically than those who ended up in higher-poverty neighborhoods and schools.
How can we help improve the chances that a low-income child in Atlanta will grow up to join the middle class? Maybe a one-way plane ticket is the answer. But our research shows that better educational outcomes, which are linked to economic success, can also come from giving low-income kids the chance to attend economically integrated schools.