Poor kids should move to North Dakota

Fascinating must-read article today by Dave Leonhardt on the geography of social mobility.  In short, it is much harder for kids to grow up and escape poverty in some parts of the country (predominantly the South) than in others (i.e., North Dakota is great):

So, what’s going on ?

“Where you grow up matters,” said Nathaniel Hendren, a Harvard economist and one of the study’s authors. “There is tremendous variation across the U.S. in the extent to which kids can rise out of poverty.”

That variation does not stem simply from the fact that some areas have higher average incomes: upward mobility rates, Mr. Hendren added, often differ sharply in areas where average income is similar, like Atlanta and Seattle…

Income mobility was also higher in areas with more two-parent households, better elementary schools and high schools, and more civic engagement, including membership in religious and community groups.

Regions with larger black populations had lower upward-mobility rates. But the researchers’ analysis suggested that this was not primarily because of their race. Both white and black residents of Atlanta have low upward mobility, for instance.

Race may not be “primary” but it is awfully hard to look at this map and not conclude that race just has to be part of what’s going on.  Sure, maybe not directly, but race most likely has affected the historical patterns of residential integration and school quality that do seem to play a role.

Kevin Drum takes the map as an opportunity to pile on the South (a recent theme here):

There are several regions that are above and below average, but the obvious outlier is the deep South. This is yet another reminder of a lesson from politics: never look solely at nationwide data. Politically, this means that the South votes fundamentally differently from everyone else. Working class whites, for example, aren’t actually a big problem for Democrats. Only southern working class whites are a big problem. When it comes to mobility, apparently the same thing is true. If you look solely at nationwide trends, you’ll miss the fact that one particular region is way, way different than the others. Poor kids don’t exactly have a great chance in life no matter where they live, but in the South, they have almost no chance at all. If you take a look at the policy preferences of southern governors and legislatures, that’s apparently exactly the way they like it.

I gotta say, I was also quite disappointed that Raleigh– though not the bottom of the barrel– fared pretty poorly.  You should definitely head over to the NYT site where there’s an interactive graphic where you can look at lots of different metro areas.

Oh, and almost forgot, geography really doesn’t make that much difference for those who are doing okay economically.  My kids will be just fine (alright, I do worry about David)– Raleigh or not.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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