Rags-to-riches stories, like Benjamin Franklin’s, have always captured the American imagination. They feed the narrative of the American Dream—that from humble beginnings, a scrappy, hardworking person can become prosperous, and afford opportunities his or her parents did not have. Through booms and recessions, people have bought into this myth.
The problem is: The American Dream lives and dies at the local level. Stanford* economist Raj Chetty has shown that conditions in our neighborhoods are really what shape our ability to escape poverty and determine if we will fare better than our parents. A new analysis by the Economic Innovation Group, a bipartisan public policy organization, builds on that finding.
Researchers there compared the economic conditions in U.S. counties with Chetty’s data on intergenerational mobility. The main takeaway? There’s a strong correlation between the two—particularly in rural areas. A poor kid growing up in a languishing area in the countryside faces tougher odds of prospering than one in the cities. Growing up in a rich rural area, however, gives kids more of a leg up than living in the rich city.
But underneath this broad urban-rural divide lies quite a bit of nuance. In their analysis, EIG researchers divide U.S. counties into four groups (pictured on the left). Below are some interesting geographical and political facts about these categories:
- “Alive and well” (in green): These counties are flourishing, and give their most vulnerable residents the tools to climb up the income ladder. They’re sprinkled around the country—along the Eastern Seaboard, in the Midwest, the West Coast, and in states like Texas in the South. Norfolk, Massachusetts, in the Boston metro area is an one example: Health care coverage is nearly universal and education levels are high. And kids below the poverty line tend to fare better the longer they live there. An interesting political fact about these counties: In the 2016 presidential election, an overwhelming share in this category voted for President Donald Trump. The ones that went to Hillary Clinton contained a larger share of the overall population in this category, however. “More than any other category, this opportunity-rich swath of America bridged the partisan divide in 2016,” the report reads.
- “Fenced off” (in yellow): These are rich counties clustered in the Midwest, West, and the South, where poor children cannot access opportunities that help them escape their circumstances. Many in the South, like Wake County, North Carolina, are particularly hard places for kids to grow up poor. Clinton took 22 percent of these counties, containing 60 percent of the population in this category.
- “Within reach, against the odds” (in blue): Places like Cameron County, Texas, aren’t rich, but poor kids who live there can get ahead. Trump won 84 percent of these “rare species,” as the report calls them. Between 2010 and 2014, most of them lost jobs and saw population declines; voters there responded to Trump’s promises to boost job growth.
- “A distant prospect” (in red): These are the places where the hard times have dug in deepest—counties that “perpetuate poverty and inequality across generations,” according to the report. A majority are clustered in rural Appalachia and the South, and remote parts of the Southwest, where a lot of Native American territories are located. Almost 80 percent of counties in this category voted for Trump. Only two are cities—Baltimore, Maryland, and Norfolk, Virginia.
The distribution of these categories in EIG’s map below seems to suggest that economic anxiety may have, indeed, played a big role in Trump’s win. (It’s certainly not the only explanation.)
Counties where the American Dream lives on have features in common, including low economic and racial segregation, good schools, and low rates of violent crime. Via the report:
If the American Dream is to become more accessible, the country needs a more geographically inclusive pattern of growth, and it needs to tackle the determinants of mobility at their roots, neighborhood by neighborhood, at the same time.
How will these embattled American Dream-seekers fare under the new presidential administration? Trump seeks to cut key programs that offer food and rental assistance in poor urban and rural populations and foster economic development in Appalachia, and the GOP health care plan, experts say, will particularly hurt older, low-income rural voters. In other words: Some of the economic conditions have led voters to put their trust in Trump are likely to be exacerbated further by his administration’s policies.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the university where Chetty conducted his research.