The Best Way to Boost Your Pay: Move

Jacqui Kenyon

social mobility in the U.S.We like to think of the American Dream as the ability to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and succeed, regardless of your circumstances.

A new study, unfortunately, proves this idea wrong once again.

New research out of Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley reveals that upward social mobility may have a geographical component. The New York Times reports that cities across the U.S. vary widely in terms of how difficult it is for low-income families to move into the middle class and higher.

Where Are Families Most Mobile?

The findings revealed that income ladder-climbing hopefuls may find their best chances in large coastal cities like New York, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles. In San Francisco, for example, children born into the bottom fifth percentile on the income scale have an 11.2% chance of rising into the top fifth percentile (equivalent to a household income of at least $70,000 by age 30, or $100,000 by age 45).

Conversely, the Southeast and the Midwest are more challenging locales for people to achieve greater wealth than their parents. Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis and Raleigh were among the standouts for low social mobility. In Atlanta, kids who grow up poor have a mere 4% chance of ascending to the top fifth income percentile by adulthood.

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The study is based on millions of anonymous records of earnings, and is thus widely considered the largest and most detailed study of social mobility in the U.S. to date.

What Determines Social Mobility?

The researchers were surprised by what they found—many of the factors they thought would impact social mobility did not. Areas that had large tax credits for the poor and higher taxes for the wealthy only received a slight bump in social mobility. There was also almost no correlation between social mobility and the availability of local colleges and tuition rates didn’t make much of a difference, either. Even the presence of extreme wealth in an area did not affect mobility.

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The disparities between cities also had nothing to do with differences in average income; Seattle and Atlanta have similar average income, but poor children in Seattle end up doing just as well as middle-class children in Atlanta.

Income mobility was higher, though, in areas with larger numbers of two-parent households, better elementary and high schools and more civic engagement. Plus, the researchers found that one of the more influential factors on social mobility was where households of different incomes lived—areas with the most mobility showed poorer families living among others of mixed income.

  • Michele

    Salary doesn’t tell the whole story about social mobility in San Francisco. I am a native San Franciscan. My father did not graduate high school. He worked a blue collar job at the airlines putting baggage on planes. He was able to afford a six bedroom, three bathroom home, send five girls to private school, and have a stay at home wife on his low salary. I am college educated, and work in biotechnology. I make six figures a year, and there is no way I could afford to buy my parent’s house now, have five kids and send them to private school, and have a stay at home spouse

  • sallybrown12

    That is very interesting, especially about the two parent households, makes sense. I agree w Michele though, my parents have high school diplomas and have always worked low paying blue collar jobs and managed to raise two kids, build two homes and at retirement have no debt and over a million dollars in assets. I make more now than they did combined and I’m not making any interest off my savings and worry about being able to afford one child, so I think a lot has to do with the economy during that time in your life.