Last month, the New York Times published an article titled “An Atlas of Upward Mobility Shows Paths Out of Poverty.” The article details a recent study that finds that some children living in poverty have a better chance of escaping poverty as adults than their counterparts living in similar situations in other cities with smaller chances of upward mobility. Essentially, growing up in poverty does not mean a child will stay poor; much depends on where they grow up.
The article lists our own hometown, Austin, as one of the cities where low-income children face the worst odds–meaning they have a small chance of living above the poverty line, even as adults. In fact, a child who grows up in Travis County will earn 8% less as an adult than if they had grown up in a city with an average chance of upward mobility.
Other cities on this list are Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Orlando, West Palm Beach, Tampa, the Bronx and low-income parts of Manhattan. It also highlights Baltimore as the city with the worst chance of upward mobility. The study, titled “The Impacts of Neighborhoods on Intergenerational Mobility,” was authored by two Harvard professors. They analyzed more than five million children who moved over a 16 year timeframe. The study found that the younger a child moves from a neighborhood with bad upward mobility to a neighborhood with better upward mobility, the higher the chance they will rise out of poverty as an adult. Additionally, the study found boys have a much harder time escaping poverty than girls. All else equal, low-income boys in these cities listed above earn about 35% less on average than other low-income boys in good areas for mobility; for low-income girls, the earning gap is about 25%.
The cities listed as the most likely for low-income kids to rise out of poverty include San Francisco, San Diego, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Providence, RI; Fairfax, VA; Macomb, MI; and other major suburban counties. There are many traits shared by these cities which lead to their conduciveness to upward mobility, such as elementary schools with high test scores, more two-parent families, less violence, more involvement by the community as a whole in civic groups and more integration in neighborhoods of wealthy, middle-class and impoverished families.
However, researchers still struggle with the “chicken and the egg dilemma,” trying to figure out whether better schools and other factors are the causes of a better chance of upward mobility, or rather are the effects that come from other underlying causes.
And whether you personally live in poverty or not, your city’s rank for upward mobility still affects you and your children. Middle-class kids from Travis County make $2,540 less per year as adults and wealthy kids from Travis County make $2,900 less per year as adults, as compared to how much they would make if they grew up in a county with average upward mobility. This is why making Austin greater for low-income families will make Austin greater for ALL of us.
Read the entire NYT article on upward mobility for more details on the study and check out this interactive map that shows you exactly how much more or less your children could earn as an adult depending on where they grow up.