Location, Location, Location

For years, I’ve said that measuring relative incomes is a lousy way to gauging a society’s economic success; it’d be much more useful to try to gauge, on an individual level, upward and downward lifetime income mobility. 

And voila – the NYTimes has released what it terms as a “ground-breaking” study on income and social mobility in America…

…and promptly turned it into a plea for more government intervention in the economy.


Climbing the income ladder occurs less often in the Southeast and industrial Midwest, the data shows, with the odds notably low in Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, Raleigh, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Columbus. By contrast, some of the highest rates occur in the Northeast, Great Plains and West, including in New York, Boston, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Seattle and large swaths of California and Minnesota.

“Where you grow up matters,” said Nathaniel Hendren, a Harvard economist and one of the study’s authors. “There is tremendous variation across the U.S. in the extent to which kids can rise out of poverty.”

I’ll take a break from the conclusions for a moment to show this pretty slick map from the Times piece:

It measures the probability that a child born into the bottom fifth of incomes would rise to the top fifth, which is noted in the graphic’s fine print as $70K by age 30 or $100K by age 45. 

The “study” shows correlation and doesn’t attempt to find causations – although plenty of lefty commentators have tried to do it for them. 

My native North Dakota shines, of course – the western parts of the state used to be relatively poor, and are now explosively wealthy.  But even the oil-free parts of the state, like my native Stutsman County, are solidly in the 20% range.

As, for that matter, are the more Republican-leaning parts of Minnesota.  And no, I’m not ascribing causation.  Merely noting a correlation. 

Back to the Times:

That variation does not stem simply from the fact that some areas have higher average incomes: upward mobility rates, Mr. Hendren added, often differ sharply in areas where average income is similar, like Atlanta and Seattle.

The gaps can be stark. On average, fairly poor children in Seattle — those who grew up in the 25th percentile of the national income distribution — do as well financially when they grow up as middle-class children — those who grew up at the 50th percentile — from Atlanta.

The article ascribes a few conclusions to the study; mainly, location matters, as does the proximity of wealth to poverty.  Which might seem to make sense – if a poor kid can see the consquences of applying oneself, they may well stand a better chance to improve their lot in life, maybe, hopefully. 

But as in the quote above, the article focuses on Atlanta (go ahead, read it) and juxtaposes it with Seattle, by way of noting that the Deep South is the biggest blotch of low income-mobility in the country. 

I’m going to suggest (and it’s only a suggestion, since I have neither the time nor money to conduct a full-fledged study elaborating on these results) that the cause of it all ties back to local society’s valueing upward mobility.  Big swathes of this country are descended fron pioneers and immigrants who saw upward mobility as an unalloyed good.  But for much of antebellum (and a good chunk of post-bellum) southern society, upward mobility was historically either a serious risk (for slaves, getting “uppity” could have life-altering consequences) or irrelevant (for “white trash”, who were a peasant class in every way but name, upward mobility was just not part of the vocabulary). 

So I’d say upward mobility is as much a matter of the part of society you were born into as it is geographical location (and the arrangement of “rich” and “poor” zip codes and the density of mass transit that goes along with it). 

Again, just an opinion.

ADDITIONAL THOUGHT:  I’m wondering – why can’t we do the same sort of analysis on schools?  Specifically, instead of analyzing school test scores, look at the progress (or lack of it) by individual student.  Especially when comparing traditional public school students with charter school students.

Comments welcome at Shot In The Dark.