Race and place of birth key factors in upward mobility in the US

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The FINANCIAL — Children in the US are less likely to earn more than their parents as adults if they are Black or grow up in Southern states. This is the key finding from a new study from UCLA, Arizona State University and LSE investigating social mobility in America.

The researchers found regions with high levels of income inequality suffered from consistently low levels of intergenerational mobility over the last century. They also found individuals growing up in urban and industrialised regions such as in the Northeast, Midwest and West experienced higher levels of social mobility between generations in the early 20th century, although this advantage declined over time.

According to The London School of Economics and Political Science, the authors of the study note that an individual’s early childhood environment has gained increasing importance over time as a predictor of economic upward mobility in the country. In the early 20th century, for example, proximity to a city with employment opportunities in manufacturing was of greater importance than in today’s economy. Contemporary upward mobility is more likely to depend on educational success.

To conduct the study, the authors analysed location and income data from the US Census for more than 1 million US-born fathers and sons in 1920 and 1940, respectively, to measure regional social mobility in the early 20th century.

They compared those findings with contemporary social mobility patterns derived from Internal Revenue Service data for 10 million children from the 1980–1982 birth cohorts and later from 2011–2012. Although the newer data captures the experiences of both males and females, the historical data only applies to males.

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Commenting on why the study looked back over 100 years, Professor of Urban Planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and Professor of Economic Geography at LSE Michael Storper said: “The article’s central concern is intergenerational social mobility — meaning the probability that the children of one generation will or will not achieve a higher socioeconomic status than their parents.

“Although adult life may take place in a region different from one’s childhood, the region where a person starts life influences factors such as quality of schooling, social support structures and parental income. We have to know how the conditions of their childhood might have helped them be both geographically and socially mobile and whether geographical migrants are more socially mobile than stay-at-homes.”

The researchers found that in recent decades, the Northern Plains went from having one of the lowest rates to among the highest for intergenerational social mobility. One factor was a propensity for people born there to relocate as adults to other parts of the country for better work opportunities, often in sunnier locales such as California and other Western states. But children born in the South had persistently lower levels of intergenerational social mobility.

Although many of the leading economic regions of the early 20th century weakened over time as springboards for intergenerational advancement, historical economic inequality within the regions with those deep roots, in contrast, exhibited a more consistent negative association. Correlating factors included high school dropout rates and income inequality.

The Black population share also showed statistical correlation, which the authors say shows the persistent impact of racial subordination, inequality and inadequate schooling on the US landscape of opportunity.

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Dylan Connor of Arizona State University said: “By social mobility, we are thinking about the degree of upward mobility within the American income/class structure for children who were born into poverty. One of the main concerns is that African American children are both more likely to be born into poverty and also face particularly high barriers to escaping poverty as adults — a point that is very strongly supported by our findings.”

A robust local labour market and access to quality schooling in early life were consistent factors in social mobility across generations and over time, according to the study. Because much of the South continues to lag other regions in terms of schooling and other social influences, major improvements in upward mobility have been slow to develop despite considerable growth in employment and economic output.

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