Where you live plays a major role in your children's upward mobility. A new study compared today’s 30-year-olds against their childhood homes, charting what some are calling the most detailed picture of social mobility in the United States to date.
Using millions of anonymous income records through tax data, researchers from Harvard and the University of California Berkeley recorded the chances for low-income children to rise into the middle class and beyond.
The worst place to rise from poverty was the Southeast, from the Mississippi River basin in eastern Arkansas to North Carolina and southern Virginia. Only about 4 percent of children in many areas in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia escaped the poverty they grew up in. Southeast states are among the worst in education, with some of the highest poverty and welfare rates in the country.
But 30-year-olds did much better in the less-populated Midwest. In areas of North Dakota and Montana that took full advantage of domestic oil and shale gas production, 30 percent of children escaped poverty.
The survey raises questions about why outcomes were so different, especially in areas with similar demographics. Atlanta and Seattle had similar average income levels, for example, but vastly different mobility rates. Seattle’s mobility was 10.4 percent, while Atlanta’s was only 4 percent.
Traditional social arguments held true. Atlanta, though highly educated, is more economically segregated than Seattle. That factor held true nationwide as “areas in which low income individuals were residentially segregated from middle income individuals were … particularly likely to have low rates of upward mobility.” Naturally, the researchers also found correlations to quality education, looking at dropout and spending rates per student. Education is notoriously poor in much of the Southeast.
But that wasn’t all they found. The real story comes from the nebulous terms “social capital” and “family structure.” In other words, who your friends are matter, and single-parent families matter: “High upward mobility areas tended to have higher fractions of religious individuals and fewer children raised by single parents.” In other words, if a child lives in a two-parent family, he or she is much more likely to be better off as an adult. Forty-seven percent of children in Mississippi grow up in single-parent homes.
The research team made it clear it could only draw correlations with these factors, but they still show the liberal social gospel can’t work alone. Children who grow up in healthy, two-parent families and network with like-minded, religious families tend to fare better.
Sounds a lot like the biblical recipe for family.
The New York Times created detailed interactive graphs with the researchers’ data. Find out how your childhood peers fared.