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Source: The equality of opportunity project; Illustration: Krieg Barrie

Finding cities of prosperity in a land of (unequal) opportunity

Cities | A recent study discovers surprising prosperity pockets in the United States where family and neighborhood makeup best determine a bright economic future

President Barack Obama wants to make 2014 the year of “opportunity for all,” as he noted in his January State of the Union message. But a recent study by leading economists suggests that fixing income inequality may not create the path to prosperity many Washington political theorists and media wonks suggest. Economists from Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley, tracked 741 metropolitan zones around the country. They discovered surprising factors feeding zones of prosperity amid economic downturns. (See for the complete study.)

According to their findings, areas with greater upward income mobility—where low-income residents had the greatest opportunity to move up—had five outstanding characteristics: mixed-income neighborhoods, less racial segregation, good schools, involvement in a wide array of religious and community groups, and two-parent families.

The study found cities that seem like up-and-comers—Atlanta, for instance—are not. Long commutes to good jobs and a dearth of mixed-income neighborhoods hinder upward mobility there. At the same time cities in the Midwest not often thought of as a land of opportunity—Fargo, N.D.; Duluth, Minn.; and Oklahoma City—do comparatively better at providing upward mobility. 

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The economists note, “The U.S. is better described as a collection of societies, some of which are ‘lands of opportunity’ with high rates of mobility across generations, and others in which few children escape poverty.”


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