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Upward Mobilty, Or Is It ‘Upward Futility’?

July 29, 2013

While a new Associated Press report claims 80 percent of Americans are teetering at the brink of poverty, a recent study from UC Berkeley and Harvard indicates that a child’s chances of rising out of poverty might may be linked to zip code.

The Quality of Opportunity Project  examines the likelihood of upward mobility, from a geographic perspective.  In other words, it shows what a child’s chances are for traversing from a lower economic stratum to a higher one if he or she lives in, say, Hayfork or Gilroy, California.  (Spoiler Alert:  Hayfork, terrible.  Gilroy, not too bad.) Along with a textual analysis, the conclusions are conveniently presented as a map, with each state broken into a mosaic of socio-economic potentialities.

Some of the findings confirm long-held stereotypes.  The Deep South, it seems, remains rigidly stratified along class lines. The chances of a child of a working stiff busting through to the upper crust are about as good as a boll weevil metamorphosing into a monarch butterfly.

On the other hand, the Great Plains seem like a good place to live if improved socio-economic status is a priority – unless you’re a Native American, in which case your children are consigned to poverty.  The Dakotas generally show great scope for upward progress, except for those lands that encompass large Indian reservations.

How does California shape up?  Not great, but not horrible.  The only region that is truly grim is the “Emerald Triangle,” the counties in the northwest part of the state (which include Hayfork; though you have to wonder if all those folks cultivating skunkweed are reporting their total incomes).  The rest of the state falls within the mid-range of mobility opportunities – including Silicon Valley.  The chances of your kid clawing his or her way up to the next rung are no better in San Jose than they are in Brownsville, Texas.

The report notes that some areas of the United States have rates of upward mobility equal to the most dynamic and egalitarian nations in the world, while other portions are stuttering along at levels more appropriate for a banana republic.  Why?  Well, it’s complicated – in fact, in many cases it’s opaque, save that such elements as income disparity, the quality of schools and “social capital” – i.e., who you know – all play a role.  And really, is that any surprise?

We want some textured insights on this data, so we’ve contacted UC economics professors and lead investigators Emmanuel Saez and Patrick Kline for details.  We’ll share their responses when we get them.

— Glen Martin

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