UPWARD MOBILITY IN AMERICA: IS IT A DREAM?

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By: Michal Kranz

For high school and college students, high social mobility is something we depend on to guarantee our success, no matter what economic background we come from.

Since the Industrial Revolution, America has been seen as the “promised land” of economic opportunity, where anyone could climb the socio-economic ladder and fulfill their dreams, however in recent decades this ladder seems to have lost a few of its rungs.  According to recent statistics, the generation currently entering college could be the first whose members are worse off financially than their parents, something that would be detrimental to the US economy as a whole.

But how does one measure socio-economic mobility? For many years researchers had looked at the equality of various social classes at a singular moment in time, however now experts are examining long-term trends and how these classes are changing, expanding, or shrinking. But the question has long remained: what influences how successful someone can be? What factors play the largest part in determining mobility? A new study from Harvard University tried to tackle exactly these questions, and has yielded some interesting results.  According to the study, the primary contributors to social mobility are family life, geographic distribution of various income groups in a given area, and of course education, with areas having the highest social mobility lying in the Great Plains and in cities along the coasts, and the lowest lying in the southeast and industrial Midwest.

According to the Harvard researchers, the most important of these factors is geography, and the highest levels of social mobility occur in regions where low-income and high-income people are spread amongst each other, rather than separated into affluent communities and urban ghettos. In addition, living in a two-parent household in an area with good schools also helps.

Some of the least mobile cities in the country like Atlanta, Charlotte, and Raleigh, offer little income diversity within individual districts, with miles of low-income housing cut off from other richer communities in these cities. Such conditions make life especially hard for poorer people, as good job opportunities are too far away to be considered “worth it”, as transportation costs and time commitments might become too burdensome for many families, especially single parent ones.

On the other hand, conditions remain relatively the same for high-income earners across the country, most evidently in metropolitan areas.  For instance, someone living in the top 20% income bracket in Memphis, TN, has approximately the same change of staying in the same economic group as someone in San Francisco, CA. However when looking at people in the bottom 20% in both cities, the San Franciscan has an 11% chance of rising to the top, while the Memphis resident only has a 3% chance; almost four times less.

While the new study sheds a lot of light on current problems and disparities within economic mobility, many questions remain.  For students and young adults hoping to earn their own wealth after college, the study suggests that perhaps our economic success may have already been predetermined by where we grew up.  Of course, the American Dream is still alive, but the chances of attaining it seem to be much more difficult for someone living in the American south than the American West, and with hard economic and political times ahead, these difficulties can only be expected to increase.

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