• Moving up
    July 24,2013

    For generations young people from Vermont and other rural areas have migrated to the cities to seek their fortunes. Nowadays it’s no different.

    The towns they leave behind may be pleasant, prosperous, lovely places, but for significant social mobility people often go elsewhere.

    The findings of a new study of social mobility in the United States were the topic of a story in The New York Times on Monday. The study was described as one of the most detailed and thorough examinations of social mobility ever conducted.

    A map accompanying the story showed that in most of Vermont slightly fewer than 10 percent of the children from the bottom fifth of the population — whose household incomes were less than $25,000 — were likely to make it into the top fifth — making $70,000 by the age of 30 or $100,000 by age 45. Southern Vermont had a slightly poorer percentage — the shading on the map suggesting it was closer to 5 percent.

    The study found wide disparities in social mobility among regions of the country. One of the worst areas was Atlanta, where about 4 percent of the lowest fifth were likely to rise to the top fifth. Regions in the South and Midwest fared poorly, including Charlotte, Raleigh, Detroit, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Milwaukee.

    The regions showing the greatest opportunity included many of the metropolitan areas on both coasts, such as San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., and northern New Jersey. There were some inland regions where advancement was more likely, such as Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis.

    Some of the greatest opportunity is available in parts of the Midwest and the Plains states, particularly North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming, where the energy boom has brought rapid economic growth.

    The authors of the study suggest that geography plays a significant role in one’s economic prospects. Vast low-income neighborhoods around Atlanta trap people in low-paying jobs even though the larger Atlanta area is relatively well off. But if young Atlantans move to Boston or New York, their opportunities improve. It is the sort of migration that has shaped the nation forever.

    The map showing degrees of social mobility suggests a split between the familiar red-blue political maps, with red, Republican-dominated regions of the South plagued by limited social mobility. But there are important exceptions, such as conservative Midwestern regions that are booming.

    There are also racial components to the study’s findings. The South, which historically has consigned African-Americans to a secondary status, shows that lack of social mobility among residents is one of the consequences. But the author’s findings show that whites in the South are hurt by lack of social mobility just as blacks are.

    The study suggests that regions willing to spend on social betterment by supporting schools and important social services offer better opportunity for economic advancement than regions that neglect education and other services. Opportunity abounds in regions that recognize that good schools matter.

    The study shows that those who are born into the top fifth are far more likely to remain there than those in the bottom are likely to arrive there. In New York 36 percent of the top fifth are likely to remain. Ten percent of the bottom fifth are likely to rise to the top fifth.

    Vermont and New Hampshire fare well among rural regions, though not nearly as well as the energy-rich states of the Plains. People can come to Vermont and still advance, as they have since the influx of outsiders began in earnest in the 1960s. But young Vermonters also understand that significant opportunities exist in the nearby metropolitan areas, as well as the high-tech centers of the West Coast.

    Vermont political leaders have sought to foster opportunity that will entice young Vermonters to remain. It’s worthwhile doing so, particularly since those opportunities will also entice enterprising outsiders to come here and improve the prospects for future generations.

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