Getting your ‘American dream?’ Much of it is determined by where you grow up.

American dream

Getting your ‘American dream?’ Much of it is determined by where you grow up.

Where a youngster grows up in the United States is becoming an increasingly important factor in predicting their future economic level.

According to economists at Brown University, Harvard University, and the United States Census Bureau, the numerous variables that define neighborhoods — such as the quality of their school districts, poverty rates, and community conditions that influence social capital — all have long-term effects on children’s future income. The findings of the study, which compared mobility levels throughout the world, were presented earlier this year at a World Bank meeting.


While it may appear clear that growing up in a desirable neighborhood increases one’s chances of success in adulthood, it also emphasizes the importance of being immersed in these locations from a young age — and that social variables, while difficult to quantify, play an essential impact in economic prospects.


According to John Friedman, professor of economics at Brown University and co-director of Opportunity Insights, these insights could help to turn the tide against worsening rates of intergenerational mobility in the United States by informing policymakers about which decisions could be the most influential in shaping upward prospects. Given the vastness of the United States, intergenerational mobility differs on a national scale. Even at the intra-city level, mobility can vary greatly between areas across the street from one other, according to Friedman.


Friedman and his colleagues at the Opportunity Insights research program developed the Opportunity Atlas, which uses U.S. Census and tax data to follow children’s adult results. According to the research, a youngster may earn an average of $56,000 as an adult if they grow up in one neighborhood, but just $33,000 if they grow up in another.


We are supposed to be the land of the American dream, where you start at the bottom and work your way up. But it is not what we observe.

“It’s not only that exposure to these local areas is crucial. “It appears that childhood exposure is the most important thing,” Friedman added.

While relocating to a “better” area can influence their wages as adults, Friedman discovered that the age at which a kid moves is also important in receiving these benefits. The older a kid is when they relocate, the lower their estimated income at the age of 35. Moving to a higher-mobility area does not result in any salary benefits at the age of 24.

Although it is difficult to identify all of the many characteristics of high-mobility neighborhoods, these places do share several traits. Lower poverty rates, more stable family structures, more social capital, and improved educational quality are among them.

“Policies tend to be more impactful in people’s trajectories when people are kids, but I don’t think there’s a sharp cut-off,” Friedman said.

Mobility measures
There are two types of mobility measures: relative and absolute. The former assesses the likelihood of climbing to the top of a country’s income distribution and has stayed steady in the United States. The latter assesses the likelihood that a kid born into poverty will advance to a higher quality of life.

“In this country, we have less [relative] mobility than in other developed countries, particularly in Europe and developing European countries.” So, even if relative mobility hasn’t become substantially better or worse over time, moving from the bottom to the top has become more difficult,” Kreg explained. Steven Brown is the Washington Center for Equitable Growth’s director of economic mobility policy. “We are thought to be the land of the American dream, where you start at the bottom and work your way up.” But that’s not what we’re seeing.”

According to World Bank data, the average likelihood of a kid of parents in the lowest half of the income distribution reaching the top quartile in the United States is 13.1%. That likelihood jumps to more than 20% in Denmark. China, South Africa, and Morocco are also ranked higher than the United States.


According to Opportunity Insights, absolute mobility between generations has been steadily declining in the United States since 1980. Concurrently, economic inequality has increased throughout this same period. While slower economic development in comparison to developing nations is one issue, the American economy is becoming relatively static in comparison to its developed-country rivals.

The “Great Gatsby Curve” shows the relationship between income disparity and intergenerational wages “stickiness.” Higher levels of income elasticity are associated with lower levels of upward mobility.

The curve demonstrates that, in comparison to other industrialized countries such as Germany, Canada, Japan, France, and Scandinavian countries, not only is wealth concentrated among a tiny minority in the United States, but there is also less upward mobility.

Education provides opportunities.
Inequality and mobility remain difficult to quantify for economists. Collecting data sets that transcend generations is tough, and with so many social elements at play — racial segregation, gender, education, family structure, and environment — determining causality, correlation, and confounding variables in a study remains difficult.

“It’s really hard to know what works, because we don’t really have the time to wait a generation to see if [a] particular intervention designed in [a] way actually made the change you want to see,” he added.

However, education has been highlighted as one of the most important gateways to increased mobility.

“Providing good-quality education without a debt burden is one of the biggest equalizers, or mobility-enhancing policies,” said Juan Palomino, a research fellow at Universidad Complutense de Madrid.

Friedman noted that education stands out because of all the pre-existing policy applications that may immediately increase quality and resource allocation in comparison to other elements. “It’s a policy area that’s very impactful, and there’s also a lot of policy levers that one could pull that would increase, kids’ long-term outcomes.”

According to OECD data, the United States ranks second only to England in the world for the highest university tuition prices. Tuition and fees have also more than quadrupled in the previous 20 years, with $1.75 trillion in outstanding student loans as of the third quarter of 2021.

While the United States’ financial assistance system should be improved, according to Friedman. Data on Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation aid awards awarded to Nebraska high school graduates revealed just an 8% rise from a base of 62% in the proportion of persons who attended a four-year college.

Notably, the Supreme Court rejected the Biden Administration’s student loan forgiveness scheme in June, depriving millions of students of the opportunity to have their obligations lowered.

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