A map of geographic mobility in the United States
What percent of a state's adult residents were born there? David H. Montgomery/CityLab

The United States is facing a new class distinction: those who are mobile across state lines, and those who are stuck.

There is little doubt that America’s class structure is changing. The decline of the working class has given rise to an incredible concentration of both wealth and disadvantage. But our class structure is not just cleaving along economic lines, but across geographic lines as well. For more and more Americans, our zip codes are our destiny, with our ability to achieve economic mobility, pursue our careers, and afford homes dependent on where we live.

More than a decade ago, in my book Who’s Your City?, I argued that the knowledge economy is bringing about an epochal shift in our class structure. The old class distinction between the corporate class and workers was giving way to a new geographically based class division. I identified three new classes: “the mobile” who have the means, education, and capability to move to spaces of opportunity; “the stuck” who lack the resources to relocate; and “the rooted” who have the resources to move, but prefer to stay where they are.

But where are these new classes based? Are some places more filled with the mobile, while other places are home to greater concentrations of the stuck and rooted?

To get at this, my colleague Karen King, a demographer at the University of Toronto’s School of Cities, pulled data from the 2017 American Community Survey to chart the share of adults 25 years and older who are currently living in the state where they were born. She did this for all Americans and for different poles of education: Americans who did not complete high school and those who have at least a college degree. My CityLab colleague David Montgomery made the maps.

The map at the top of the page shows the broad pattern. Nearly six in ten Americans (58.5 percent) currently reside in the state where they were born. There is a minuscule difference between men and women: A slightly higher percentage of men (58.8 percent) lived in their birth state compared to women (58.2 percent).

But there is huge variation across states as the map shows. Look at the broad “stuck belt” running across the middle of the country from Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, down through West Virginia, and into the South in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana where 60 to 74 percent of residents live in the state in which they were born. Louisiana tops the list with nearly three quarters of the population native born, followed by Michigan with 72 percent and Ohio with 71 percent.

(David H. Montgomery/CityLab)

The map above tracks the geography of college grads. It shows a similar Stuck Belt spanning the Rustbelt and Deep South. Louisiana again tops the list with nearly two-thirds of its adults who hold a bachelor’s degree or more remaining in the state, followed by Michigan (64 percent), Ohio (63 percent), and Mississippi and Iowa (62 percent).

(David H. Montgomery/CityLab)

The third map charts the pattern for Americans who did not complete high school. Now the Stuck Belt has expanded in other parts of the country. Louisiana again tops the list with roughly three-quarters of its adults who did not complete high school native to the state as does West Virginia (75.6 percent), followed by Mississippi (72.9 percent), and Kentucky (72.6 percent).

The geography of the mobile is concentrated in the Sunbelt states (where population has been rapidly increasing) and, to a lesser extent, on the coasts. Nevada stands out with only 10 percent of current adult residents who were born there, followed by Florida (22 percent), Arizona (23 percent) and Alaska (27 percent). Colorado, New Hampshire, Wyoming, Oregon, Delaware, Washington, Idaho, and Maryland all have between 30 and 40 percent. And larger coastal states like California and New Jersey have rates in the low 40 percent range. New York and Illinois have significantly higher shares of people, roughly 55 percent, who were born in those states.

The pattern stands true if we look at only highly educated adults. Less than ten percent of college grads in Nevada were born there, followed by Arizona (17 percent) and Florida (18.5 percent). About four in ten highly educated adults in California were born there, while roughly half in New York (53 percent) and Massachusetts (48 percent) were born in those states.

(David H. Montgomery/CityLab)

The last map looks at who’s more likely to stay in their birth state: college grads or high school dropouts. Blue shows states where college grads are more likely to be born in-state, while beige and maroon indicate where high school dropouts are more likely to have been born in-state. The picture here may not necessarily be in line with what we might think.

For one, New York is dark blue, meaning a higher share of college grads were born there and decided to continue living there. More than half of New York’s college grads (53 percent) were born there, compared to a third (33 percent) of the state’s residents with less than a high school diploma, a 20-point difference. In California, 37.5 percent of highly educated adults were born in-state compared to 20 percent of those without a high school degree, an 18-point differential. The pattern is similar in Texas and Massachusetts.

I identify two possibilities: For one, these states tend to have high immigrant populations. The higher percentage of immigrants without these educational degrees may shift the numbers of the less educated residents who were born in-state. Secondly, the high cost of housing may have pushed out the less educated and less affluent households to find opportunities in other states.

Economic opportunity in America increasingly turns on where we live, and our ability to move. Our class structure is being reshaped by our geography, with a new divide between the mobile versus the stuck and the rooted. The stuck are concentrated in states in the Deep South and the Rustbelt. The mobile are located in Sunbelt states like Nevada, Arizona, and Florida, while states like New York and California appear to be shedding less-educated residents. This new geography of class and place is yet another dividing line in our increasingly polarized society.

CityLab editorial fellow Claire Tran contributed research and editorial assistance to this article.

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