Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
A map of America's unequal economic mobility.
The inequality of economic mobility has been getting a lot of attention since the release this summer of new research from scholars at Harvard and UC Berkeley quantifying how much harder it is for children in some parts of the United States to grow up and out of poverty than in other places. A child stands a better chance of moving up the income ladder in San Francisco than in Atlanta, for example, or in Salt Lake City compared to Cleveland.
The expanding research (and attention) around this topic underscores two related realities: Your prospects for economic mobility are partly determined by where you live. And that means opportunity itself – often bullishly described as a universal feature of American life – is not exactly universal after all.
For several years now, an advocacy coalition called Opportunity Nation has been doing some related work trying to quantify and map the characteristics of local communities that help expand or constrict economic mobility, from the presence of affordable housing, to broad access to preschool, to low rates of violent crime. In partnership with Measure of America, a project of the Social Science Research Council, they've created an "opportunity index" that scores counties and states on 16 relevant metrics.
The resulting annually updated map, shown above, takes a stab at capturing where people have the greatest chance of upward mobility. In this third just-released iteration, Nevada again ranks as the state with the least opportunity (this year Vermont had the most). Darker shadings on the above map (as well as the ones below) correspond to higher scores.
On the county-by-county scores, America's largest cities hardly fared well. Los Angeles County; Cook County, Illinois (where Chicago is based); Dallas County; Harris County (home to Houston); and the counties that make up New York City all garnered mediocre scores, or the equivalent of C grades. Dallas, for instance, has a relatively high poverty rate, low preschool enrollment, and higher-than-average rates of violent crime. Manhattan has the worst ratio in the country of residents with a household income in the 80th percentile to those in the 20th percentile (a measure of inequality).
You can peruse the full data and methodology here. The tool also maps every one of the 16 indicators, which draw on data from the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. Department of Education and more. Many major metros perform well on metrics like access to health care (dark red counties have the most primary care providers per 100,000 residents):
...and the Internet (dark green have the highest coverage):
While they do less well on affordable housing (dark green counties have the highest percentage of the population paying less than 30 percent of their household income on housing):
Meanwhile, here is the picture of preschool enrollment (dark purple counties have the highest percentage of children 3 and 4 in school):
And income inequality (dark green counties have the highest ratio of households with income at the 80th percentile to that at the 20th percentile):
This picture of opportunity does not take into account some of the other factors that the Harvard-Berkeley research pointed to, like the role of land use and population density. But this mapping tool is another useful contribution in understanding why some parts of the country might offer stronger odds of escaping poverty.
All maps courtesy of Opportunity Nation.