Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Immobility's cities

Some people deplore inequality of income, but we at TSOE care fare more about mobility, both over one's lifetime and from one generation to another. Well, a huge new study that examines income mobility, or lack thereof, at a local level will, or at least ought to, upend the debate about policy responses to the problem. The findings challenge the dogmas of both left and right, which is so much more entertaining than the usual social science. In the extracts below, we have rendered findings that will irritate talking-point conservatives in bold, and those that will confound party-line liberals in italics. A few findings are bound to irritate both groups, depending on the details.

The study — based on millions of anonymous earnings records and being released this week by a team of top academic economists — is the first with enough data to compare upward mobility across metropolitan areas. These comparisons provide some of the most powerful evidence so far about the factors that seem to drive people’s chances of rising beyond the station of their birth, including education, family structure and the economic layout of metropolitan areas.

Climbing the income ladder occurs less often in the Southeast and industrial Midwest, the data shows, with the odds notably low in Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, Raleigh, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Columbus. By contrast, some of the highest rates occur in the Northeast, Great Plains and West, including in New York, Boston, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Seattle and large swaths of California and Minnesota.

“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.”


What they found surprised them, said Raj Chetty, one of the authors and the most recent winner of the John Bates Clark Medal, which the American Economic Association awards to the country’s best academic economist under the age of 40. The researchers concluded that larger tax credits for the poor and higher taxes on the affluent seemed to improve income mobility only slightly. The economists also found only modest or no correlation between mobility and the number of local colleges and their tuition rates or between mobility and the amount of extreme wealth in a region.

But the researchers identified four broad factors that appeared to affect income mobility, including the size and dispersion of the local middle class. All else being equal, upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods.

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.

At some we will read the underlying paper and report further, but the linked newspaper account is a good start, even if it is the New York Times.


  1. Not sure why a finding of higher economic mobility being correlated with greater economic mixing (dare I say "integration?") would irritate a conservative. It certainly doesn't this one.

    Nor do I see why improving early education should irritate a conservative.

    On the matter of the efficacy of tax credits (and on the degree of progressivity in our tax system), [ahem] I address this somewhat obliquely in one of my books where I talk about a flat tax with no deductions, etc, and everyone pays the tax.

    Eric Hines

  2. I think a lot of conservatives like low density living, such as in exurbs and suburbs with a lot of space between houses. And so forth.

  3. A couple of things: conservatives aren't monolithic in our elbow room preferences. Also, that's just a comfort zone; I don't know of many conservatives that equate elbow room with an ability to achieve upward economic mobility so much as it's one outcome of having successfully moved up.

    Eric Hines


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