Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Upward mobility in nonmetropolitan America?

The New York Times featured this story and interactive map yesterday about the role of geography in upward mobility.  The story, by David Leonhardt, is based on the work of several Harvard professors at the Equality of Opportunity project.

Leonhardt focused his reporting on metropolitan areas, highlighting those with the greatest upward mobility, as well as those with the least.  Atlanta and Charlotte are bad.  Boston, New York, San Francisco and Seattle are good.  What Leonhardt didn't attend to--though the interactive map necessarily does--is upward mobility in nonmetropolitan areas.  And there are some real surprises.  Who would have thought that the chances of going from the bottom quintile in income to the top quintile in income are greater in places like western Kansas, Nebraska and the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles than, say, Vermont and New Hampshire.  I did not expect mobility n the Elko and Winnemucca, Nevada areas to be greater than in Reno and Las Vegas.  

In fact, that is one of the most surprising things about this study's findings:  the fact that mobility is greater in so many rural places compared to urban ones.  Here's another case in point:  tiny Harlowton, Montana, population 997 and the county seat of high poverty Wheatland County, enjoys a 19% mobility index, while that for well-educated university town Missoula is only 11.5%.  (This was of special interest to me because I studied Wheatland County extensively in this project).  

Notoriously poor Hazard Kentucky--often thought of as the hub of Appalachia--enjoys greater upward mobility than most of that region.  All of the counties in the Rio Grande Valley feature greater upward mobility than basically the entire state of Ohio--in spite of the fact that most counties in the Rio Grande Valley are persistent poverty counties.  Minnesotans living outside the Twin Cities and Duluth fare better on this mobility index than their urban counterparts.

On the other hand, some findings were predictable.  Upward mobility is very low in many counties dominated by Indian Country, including Apache and Navajo counties in Arizona, and the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.  On the other hand, upward mobility is high in places like western North Dakota and eastern Montana, whose young people are no doubt seeing the economic benefits of the oil boom--even absent investments in higher education.

As reflected in the findings about poor upward mobility in Atlanta, Charlotte and Memphis, the rural black belt and Mississippi Delta were the parts of the country faring worst as a region.  

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