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Where a child lives can affect chances of success

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on February 12, 2013)

A new report from the National Bureau of Economic Research has been generating a lot of attention for the spotlight it throws on opportunities for U.S. children to advance themselves economically from one generation to the next.

Nationwide, children born to families in the bottom fifth of earners have about a 10 percent chance of making it into the top fifth of earners by age 26. While that rate of “intergenerational mobility” hasn’t changed much since the 1970s, widening income inequality means larger consequences for what the authors call the “birth lottery.”

They use the example of rungs on a ladder to represent income divisions. In short, while the odds of climbing from one rung to the next have remained much the same for the past half-century, the space between the rungs is growing wider.

Moreover, when looked at closely, the rates of intergenerational mobility vary widely across regions. A child’s chances of success are not only affected by parental income, but also by where that child grows up. Children raised in Nashville have only a 5.7 percent chance of advancing from the bottom to the top fifth of earners. In Atlanta, that chance is 4.5 percent. In Memphis, it’s 2.8 percent.

Contrast those numbers with cities like San Jose (12.9 percent); Washington, D.C. (11 percent); or Salt Lake City (10.8 percent).

Worse, many nations offer greater opportunities for intergenerational mobility than does the U.S. The authors write, “The key issue is not that prospects for upward mobility are declining but rather that some regions of the U.S. persistently offer less mobility than most other developed countries.”

The researchers identify major factors that strongly correlate with income mobility. Needless to say, these factors are not independent of each other.

High levels of segregation, for example areas with larger African-American populations, correlate with lower mobility — and not only for African-Americans but for white individuals, as well.

Areas with greater income inequality and a dwindling middle class are less upwardly mobile, while areas with stocks of social capital, such as religious and civic participation, are more so. School quality — as measured by test scores, lower dropout rates and smaller class sizes — correlates positively with upward income mobility.

Most importantly, the authors say, is family structure, specifically the fraction of single parents in an area. As with race, this does not only affect the children of single-parent families. “Children of married parents also have higher rates of upward mobility if they live in communities with few single parents,” they write.

The study was conducted by researchers at Harvard University, the University of California-Berkeley, and the U.S. Department of the Treasury, who examined earning records and college attendance rates for children born between 1971 and 1993.

Their findings show just how complex the problem of economic mobility can be even as they suggest several avenues — including education — where we might productively apply our energies.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.