Movin’ On Up: It’s Much Harder If You Live in the Wrong Town

by Bruce Watson

The fact that it’s getting harder to move up the economic ladder shouldn’t come as a surprise anymore. For years, studies have shown that economic mobility in America has declined, both relative to other countries and to our nation’s own history. And it’s not like there’s any lack of culprits — research has cited a variety of reasons, ranging from the impact of single-parent households to the importance of good schools to the effect of America’s thin economic safety net. But recently, a study by economists at Harvard University and UC-Berkeley uncovered another major factor: geography.

In “The Economic Impacts of Tax Expenditures,” economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, and Emmanuel Saez divided the country into 741 areas, most of which include urban, suburban and rural sections. They then analyzed the degree of economic mobility in each area, noting the relative difficulty that a lower-income child would face as he or she attempted to move up the economic ladder.

The toughest climb in the country is in Nome, Alaska, where a child born into the bottom fifth of households has a 2.2 percent chance of rising to the top fifth. On the opposite end of the scale, a child born in the bottom fifth of households in Gettysburg, S.D., has a 34.8 percent chance of making it to the top fifth.

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