Earlier this month, a group of economists released the results of a massive study looking at the economic prospects of people from across the United States. What they found was that the U.S. is like a patchwork quilt of different countries, where some regions offer people the economic prospects of a typical developed nation — and other regions are more like a developing country.
Concept art for Blade Runner by Syd Mead
This study debunks a few myths about the United States, including the idea that wealthy nations have wealthy citizens. It's a powerful reminder that nations are hardly unified entities, and that the interests of one region often clash with the interests of another.
But it's most importantly a measure of how nations change over time, as new generations come of age. The economists wanted to know whether children in the US were likely to be wealthier relative to their parents. Growing up in the U.S., kids are often told that things are getting better for each generation — and many parents work hard at low-paying jobs with the belief that their children will have it better than they do. But are those expectations realistic? The researchers looked at economic data for all people born in the US between 1980-82. They determined where each individual had grown up by looking at where they lived at the age of 16. Then the economists checked to see what each person's income was in 2011-12, when they'd reached the age of 30. They write:
Using these income data, we calculate two measures of intergenerational mobility. The first, relative mobility, measures the difference in the expected economic outcomes between children from high-income and low-income families. The second, absolute upward mobility, measures the expected economic outcomes of children born to a family earning an income of approximately $30,000 (the 25th percentile of the income distribution).
We construct measures of relative and absolute mobility for 741 "commuting zones" in the US. Commuting zones are geographical aggregations of counties that are similar to metro areas but also cover rural areas.
Above, you can see a map that shows one measure of absolute mobility in the United States. It reveals how many people born into families with low incomes will grow up to have incomes in the top fifth. In essence, how likely is it that a kid born poor will become a self-made millionaire? In San Francisco, you've got about an 11% chance. You'd have better luck in North Dakota or West Texas.
Now let's consider relative mobility, which in this study measured how likely people are to move up or down the economic ladder relative to their parents. Some areas of the United States, such as Atlanta, have very little social mobility. People born into poor families tend to be poor as adults. In other areas, like Seattle, economic mobility is common and children from poor families have a good chance of growing up to make more money than their parents. If you'd like to take a look at the statistics for your region, the New York Times has an interactive map.
Below, you can see the zones of economic mobility in the US — they are the lighter areas. Redder areas are zones where children face financial prospects no better (or worse) than what their parents have.
This is no surprise to people who live in the South and the Rust Belt, where poverty is a part of everyday life and is hard to ignore. But I suspect it's not as obvious to people in California, where I grew up. In the suburbs of Orange County, where I lived at the age of 16, neighborhoods were extremely segregated by income. We had neighbors from many different countries, but I'd have to drive miles on the freeway before seeing any working class or poor neighborhoods. When you're in that situation, it's easy to pretend that your country has overcome the poverty problem. Adding to this illusion is the fact that kids growing up poor in California have a reasonable chance at attaining a higher class status as adults. So it seems like everything is getting better for everybody, everywhere.
But of course that isn't true. Looked at from the perspective of somebody in Georgia or Arkansas, my California childhood illusions sound as absurd as they were. The U.S. is a nation that is still divided, in ways that echo the divisions that once started a civil war roughly 150 years ago. What causes these rifts to develop in a country? Why are some young Americans looking at a future like Star Trek, while most are stuck in Blade Runner's timeline?
What the researchers discovered was that there were five factors strongly correlated with mobility. One was segregation. The more racially segregated the commuting zone was, the less likely children born there would be upwardly mobile. This was true no matter what racial or ethnic background the children came from. White kids in a segregated area faced just as little chance of upward mobility as kids of color.
Another factor correlated with lack of upward mobility was income inequality. Areas where there was a greater disparity between rich and poor had far less mobility, leading the authors to note that the factors that erode the middle classes also erode class mobility. They also found that home life affects a child's economic future strongly. Commuting zones with a preponderance of single-parent families suffered from less mobility. Even children with two parents fared worse if many of their neighbors included families with only one parent. This is likely caused by economic factors — kids with a single parent usually have access to fewer resources, and may live in areas with a lot of income inequality too.
Increased economic mobility was correlated, not surprisingly, with good K-12 schools (good colleges were only loosely correlated with economic mobility) and with tight-knit social networks formed by people who were actively engaged in civic activities or social groups like religious congregations.
What's important about these findings is that they are not about causation, but correlation. Lack of mobility is part of a pattern of overlapping social phenomena. A dim economic future evolves more often in commuting zones where there is rigid class stratification, segregation, poor schools, lack of social cohesion, and homes where children have fewer adults to raise them. Changing any of these factors could affect a child's outcome. But changing nothing still changes the future. It just brings us one step closer to Blade Runner, with its income-segregated neighborhoods and replicant slaves.
I once asked a historian whether we could learn from history how to build a better future. She laughed until she realized that my question was serious, and then said simply, "All we can learn from history are our mistakes. Hopefully we can learn not to do the wrong thing again."
Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9 and this is her column. She's also the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.