Pew on economic mobility: To get ahead, try Northeast or Midwest


All societies have creation myths, ideas that are so fundamental that they have survived over time and define the heart of why people came together in the first place. In the United States, there is no idea more enduring than that anyone can work himself or herself up the economic ladder to a better present and an even more glorious future.

It turns out, however, that economic mobility may not be as widespread as the politics it supports. Further, it may be swayed by geography so that those in the Northeast and Midwest have a better chance than those in the South of actually moving on up.

In a report that is the first of its kind, researchers at the Economic Mobility Project at the Pew Center on the States examined economic mobility on the state level. The report — under the aegis of the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts — was released this week.


Those living in eight states primarily in the Northeast and Midwest had consistently higher upward mobility and lower downward mobility than the national average. Nine states, all in the South — long a laggard in most comparisons related to the economy — were below the national average. Those in the remaining states were around the national average, neither surging ahead nor falling down.

To be sure, there are individuals everywhere who are better or worse off than their peers. But on a statewide basis, those living in Maryland, New Jersey and New York were most likely to move up the earnings ladder and least likely to fall, while those Louisiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina were most likely to remain economically stuck.

“This shows that the American dream and equality of opportunity differ from state to state,” Diana Elliot, research manager at Pew’s Economic Mobility Project, said in an interview with Bloomberg. She worked on the study with Erin Currier, who oversees the mobility project. “This is yet another indicator that leaders and policymakers have at their disposal to understand how their state measures up.”

Based on data from the Census and Social Security Administration, the report looked at representative workers’ earnings over a 10-year span during which they aged from their 30s to their 40s. The workers were from 35 to 39 at some point from 1978 to 1997.

The report then looked at three factors: absolute mobility — how much states’ residents earned over time; relative upward mobility; and relative downward mobility. The two relative mobilities measured how earnings changed compared with peers.

Maryland, New Jersey and New York scored above average on all three measures, followed by Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Utah, which did well in two categories.


On the flip side, Louisiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina scored the worst on all three measures, followed by Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas.


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