Where You Grow Up Influences How Much You Earn

PHOTO: According to a new study, where you grow up seems to play a big role when it comes to determining whether you will rise out of poverty.

Christopher Futcher/Getty Images

Young people from low-income backgrounds are constantly told a college education is the ticket to a better life. But the likelihood that they will escape poverty also has a lot to do with something they can't control: where they grew up.

According to a new study on income mobility, the chances of poor kids climbing the economic ladder as adults are pretty low in the South compared to places like San Francisco and New York.

In other words, where you grow up seems to play a big role when it comes to determining whether you will rise out of poverty.

The New York Times has an interactive map based on the study of where poor kids fare best.

More than a quarter of all kids in the Vernal area outside Salt Lake City in the bottom fifth income level rose to the top fifth, for example. The same is true for large swaths of North Dakota. But fewer than 3 percent of kids in places like Eufaula, Alabama, do the same.

Geography makes less of a difference for affluent kids. They are pretty likely to be affluent adults no matter where they live. That could be attributable to several factors, from education options to networking opportunities.

The researchers expected tax breaks - high taxes for affluent people, tax breaks for poor people - to make a difference for poor kids. And they do play a role, but so do some other surprising factors.

Where poor people live is critical. Where they are concentrated, upward mobility is limited. Where they are dispersed, it is more likely. That the South scores relatively low when it comes to mobility is not surprising, then. The area is still dealing with the after-effects of mandated segregation, and in some ways that process is ongoing. Poor neighborhoods often have insufficient public transportation, and they often have more liquor stores and convenience shops than grocery stores and libraries. A lack of transportation can make it difficult to get to jobs, which can make it hard to earn a living wage.

That ties into another point: Kids who attend better schools are also more likely to rise. When poor kids are distributed among schools and not concentrated in one area, they tend to do better. It's not that rich kids are innately smarter, but they do tend to have more highly educated parents who have time and money to contribute to schools. When poor kids are distributed in those schools, they're also likelier reap those benefits.

Areas where people were engaged in church and community organizations did well, as did places with more two-parent families. Rural areas and mid-range towns also seem to do a good job of helping kids rise out of poverty, Nathaniel Hendren, a Harvard economist and one of the study's authors, said in an interview.

This isn't to say that a poor kid born in Alabama or Georgia can't move up the income ladder. It's just that there are factors - poor transportation, bad schools, segregated neighborhoods - that make it difficult.

"For somebody whose parents earn $30,000 per year," Hendren said, "they've kind of been given that lot in life when they're born, how well they do varies tremendously depending on wherever they grew up."

Update, 6:15 p.m.: An earlier version of this story cited an interview Nathaniel Hendren did with the New York Times. It has been updated to reflect an interview he did with Fusion this afternoon.

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