Communities with better public schools and more integrated housing offer better opportunities for poor children to climb out of poverty as they grow, according to a new study from the ongoing Equality of Opportunity Project at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley.
The study looked at 741 “commuting zones”—geographical groups of counties based on commuting patterns that are similar to metro areas but also cover rural areas—across the United States. Researchers analyzed characteristics of the communities in which children who were born between 1980 and 1981 grew up (to age 16), and then tracked those children’s income at age 30, in order to gauge how frequently children born poor, middle-class, or wealthy moved among the socioeconomic tiers.
Social mobility varies tremendously between different geographic areas, the study found. For example, a child born into the lowest 20 percent of family income in Gettysburg, S.D.—less than $25,000 a year—has more than a one-in-three chance of growing up to earn in the top 20 percent of Americans’ annual incomes (more than $70,000), while a child born in poverty in Salt Lake City or Scranton, Pa., has better than a one-in-10 chance of doing the same. By contrast, much of the South and Southwest has more limited social mobility. A child born in poverty in the Atlanta area has only a 4 percent chance of becoming a top earner. Even a middle-class child in that city has only a 14 percent chance of earning more than $70,000 by age 30.
The researchers found that social mobility did improve in communities with relatively stronger economies overall, but that the overall economy wasn’t the main source of differences in social mobility from city to city, nor was the cost of living. However, cities with a smaller middle class, and those in which the wealthiest and poorest families live farther apart geographically, had lower social mobility, suggesting that more economically integrated communities are associated with better social mobility.
In general, researchers found higher-than-average rates of social mobility in communities which, after controlling for income-level differences, had higher K-12 test scores, lower dropout rates, and higher per-student spending on education.
A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2013 edition of Education Week as Geography Is Destiny in Study of Children’s Social Mobility