Where you grow up can hurt how far you rise

When it comes to climbing the economic ladder, certain parts of the country will put you at a distinct disadvantage.

By Aimee Picchi Jul 22, 2013 2:29PM

Hand holding stethoscope to map of the United States (© Christine Balderas/Photodisc/Getty Images)Americans cherish the image of their country as the land of opportunity. No matter where you live, the thinking goes, anyone with gumption and elbow grease can make a success of themselves.

But a new study calls into question that belief because the researchers found that income mobility is actually hampered by geography. If you live in much of the South -- including big cities such as Atlanta and Memphis, Tenn. -- you're much less likely to see your income climb as are residents of the Northeast, the West and Great Plains, The New York Times notes.

The reasons don't appear to be linked to tax credits or taxes on the wealthy, however. Instead, economic gains may be linked to the quality of a region's schools, as well as its socio-economic diversity and its level of civic engagement.

The study considered millions of anonymous records from families in 1980-81, and then measured the income of their now-adult children in 2010-11. "Where you grow up matters," Nathaniel Hendren, a Harvard economist and one of the study's authors, told The Times. "There is tremendous variation across the U.S. in the extent to which kids can rise out of poverty."

For instance, a child growing up in Atlanta and whose family is in the 10th percentile of earners (making $16,000 per year) will on average end up in the 31st percentile of earners. However, a child from San Francisco with a similar family background will end up in the 41st percentile, the study found.

The report, which studied millions of earnings records, had some startling findings about what factors are or aren't important for upward mobility. For instance, income was only slightly affected by larger tax credits for the poor and higher taxes on the wealthy, The Times noted. 

So, what did make a difference? The researchers found a few big issues. The first is how income is distributed across a geographic area, with upward mobility helped in cities that mix poor families with higher-income households. 

Not surprisingly, cities with better elementary and high schools saw greater income mobility, as did those with more two-parent households and higher civic engagement. 

The study also found that while regions with big black populations saw less upward mobility, it didn't boil down to race. Atlanta's white and black residents both suffer from a lack of income gains. 

The cities with the highest mobility rates include Pittsburgh, Seattle, Wash., and Salt Lake City. 

Still, the researchers cautioned that the findings "are correlational and cannot be interpreted as causal effects."

The report added: "There are some areas in the U.S. where a child's chances of success do not  depend heavily on his or her parents' income. Understanding the features of these areas -- and how we can improve mobility in areas that currently have lower rates of mobility -- is an important question for future research."

Follow Aimee Picchi on Twitter at @aimeepicchi

More on moneyNOW

Jul 22, 2013 5:04PM
Don't have to worry about that in Chicago where life expectancy is around 18 years.
Jul 22, 2013 5:09PM
Don't have to worry in L.A. either...whatever you make state and local taxes taketh away.
Jul 22, 2013 6:15PM
Rubbish!  We are a global society and there are numerous opportunities for ANYONE with ambition and drive to advance!  As the saying goes - you don't work, you don't eat.  Unfortunately, today's youth believe they are entitled to good grades, good jobs, good pay, good cars, homes, etc., as long as they simply show up.  They have never learned that you must earn your worth....
Jul 22, 2013 6:38PM

Yeah - and journalism USED TO BE a respectable profession.

Jul 22, 2013 4:49PM
I wouldn't doubt it...  Being from MI, the first step to success is to figure out how to escape MI.  Others might not have to put energy into an endeavor like that.
Jul 22, 2013 6:56PM
Typical Picchi article - "feel better about yourself by blaming everything and everyone else for your poor choices". 

This victim mentality is penetrating every part of our society and it's killing us.
Jul 22, 2013 7:32PM

So the big solution is to live in an area with as few single parent households and as much income diversity as possible?  In other words, move to the suburbs or a rural city if you want your kids to succeed.  This shouldn't be big news to anyone living in urban ghettos...  If your entire school district is composed of low income with a heavy proportion of ****ers, how do you expect your school district to attract and retain good staff?  Its impossible...


IMO, the end of true public housing developments and rise of section 8 has exasperated income diversity.  You used to have many quiet working class neighborhoods where there was quite a bit of income diversity, and the issues typically associated with low income areas like high crime were confined to a limited area making it easier to manage.  Now, any reasonably affordable housing that gets rented is open to people with Section 8 vouchers.  As the Section 8 mooches moved into those quiet working class neighborhoods and the crime followed, everyone with means got the heck out.  Look at Detroit and Chicago for some good examples...

Jul 22, 2013 5:05PM
I'm in Atl.  hi school grad w/4 yrs college.  mom was a nurse; dad worked at the post office.  I retired at 54 with six figure pay.  Being in/from the south didn't affect my income potential...education did.  Reporting someone else's statistics gets your story shot out of the water.  Give the readers something they can use instead of a bunch of garbage.
Jul 22, 2013 8:15PM
It is really genetics.  I have seen people with fabulous advantages go bust and people staring out with two strikes against them hit home runs.  Never give up, after many long years you may become an "overnight success".  Real success is being happy in your own skin.
Jul 22, 2013 5:44PM
Successful people are influenced from successful people.  You can only learn that which is being taught.  People from areas influenced by upwardly mobile people have a greater chance of actually succeeding. 
Jul 23, 2013 10:06AM
The bottom line is children, who are raised in a 2 parent household with parents who set good examples, place a high priority on education, social skills and have high expectations of the their children, normally have a successful adult life. 
Jul 23, 2013 8:27AM
Hello Aimee my name is Matthew and I read your article on MSN.com "Where you grow up can hurt how far you rise". You make some valid points about the quality of schools making a difference in a growing child and developing young adults life and also the fact that in the South it is very much harder to rise in social and economic standings.
     But Aimee I believe there are critical points of information that was missed in this study that hamper a child's growth. Such as stability in the home not connected with money and status. Some examples of this are drug abuse in the household by the parents and also the child, domestic abuse and MOST IMPORTANTLY lack of parenting. I've seen so many situations where a household makes more than enough money to provide and the child goes nowhere. Lack of parenting. Drug abuse. There are many situations where a child has been sexually abused and is forever lost to his or her own despair and pain. There are also many situations where there is child abuse ranging from malnutrition to mental abuse to physical abuse. Cases like these are more frequent in higher poverty areas and in the more black populated areas of the country. Also young adults become involved with crime and murder at a younger and younger age. This is happening mostly within the black and Hispanic population due to the glorification of murder, drugs and crime through the image of the gangster.
     There are many factors that should be considered when raising a child. Money is not the most important thing but it is necessary to live. All in all Aimee the American society should focus on their children's future. We should focus on making better educators and better people. It doesn't take money to raise a kid. It takes loving and smart parents to raise a kid properly (and a little bit of extra money to spoil the child just a tad bit never hurt).
Jul 22, 2013 7:56PM
How does cost of living fit in?  You're going to need that extra 10 percentile difference to pay the higher rent in San Francisco.
Jul 23, 2013 5:46AM

People are underestimating the value of the two parent household in all of this. Going to a private university (where I am on the Dean's list) I see first hand how much of an advantage kids get in life just from having two parents that offer emotional and financial support.

The two biggest challenges to getting ahead in life is emotional support and education. Technical jobs offer a lot of career advancement at any age, whereas if your interest is in the arts, you're pretty much screwed if you didn't begin acting at 13-17 and dancing by the age if twelve. That means ALOT of talent never comes to fruition in the world all because of economics! Not all career fields are created equally.

As for education, Harvard requires a 2.0 GPA! Compare the odds of a Harvard graduate getting ahead in life to someone with a 4.0 in a state college. Harvard will win every time.

I spent 10 years as a homemaker homeschooling a child with a heart defect. I used to get up at 5 a.m. to make breakfast for my mother as she got ready for work to feed her family as a single mom, but does any employer care about that? No, they dismiss me for not having enough work experience because apparently I need a degree in how to wait tables! Yet they repeatedly hire unprofessional and unhygienic teenagers. My brother is permanently disabled before the age of 30 due to his service in Iraq. He is now retired and living at the very bottom of our economic table. All of you who want to judge people for their struggles should count your blessings and try walking a mile in another's shoes before passing judgment because I've had to walk over a mile in temps below 10 degrees to get food for my family! How much have you had to do from your central air conditioning?

I have a 3.8 GPA and am in the top 90% of almost every subject on standardized testing. It hasn't given me a single benefit! I can't study theatre production because I'm 30 and didn't have access to theatre classes in high school. I will likely switch to Community College because university is expensive. I have the grades to get into almost ANY university I want but can't because I don't have $40,000-$60,000 a semester/year to pay for the tuition. Compare that to kids that get full scholarships just for being a minority!

Jul 22, 2013 7:50PM

Financial success has nothing to do with what the govenrment isn't doing for you.  Its a cl****blem.  Poor people have a very different culture than the middle & upper classes that doesn't do the up & coming generations any favors for financial success.

Jul 23, 2013 11:01AM

Do you know why they don't use forensic evidence in the courts of the deep southern states? Because a all the DNA is the same and there's only one tooth. The research for this story must have been done by professor obvious. The south is a stink hole who's politics, religion, and culture is holding this country back. If you live there are are offended by my remarks, I'd say start treating yourself and your country better by abandoning the ethics of ignorance that you currently embrace. Stop voting against your own best interests and join with the civilized people of your country in moving ahead.

Jul 23, 2013 10:46AM

"99% of your life is what you make of it, so if your life sucks, you suck"

Jul 22, 2013 7:26PM
It is nearly impossible to get ahead in a country where our own government is trying to pick which industry wins and which industry loses. Our governments war on the fossil fuel industry and the industry that uses fossil fuel is a prime example of why in certain areas of the country working men and women in these industries will not live as well as their parents. 
Jul 23, 2013 12:51PM
Excuses, excuses, excuses ! That's all you hear now - never is it any of your own fault - never - NOT !!
Jul 23, 2013 10:24AM
Let's explore if these generations of families set any expectations for their children.  If one sets low or no expectations I'm not surprised it's harder to be successful
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