Special Report

Counties Where the American Dream Is Dead

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The expectation that children born in the United States will do better than their parents is the bedrock of the American dream. Rates of upward income mobility have fallen sharply in recent decades, however, and in some areas they are close to zero.

According to recent research on intergenerational mobility, the percentage of children who grow up to earn more than their parents is down from approximately 90% of children born in 1940, to 50% of children born in the 1980s.

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Economic research organization The Equality of Opportunity Project considered average incomes of 26-year olds raised in the bottom quartile in 2,973 U.S. counties. A 26-year old from this background who earns more than the national average for his age and income group is said to have managed upward income mobility.

The researchers found neighborhood environments have substantial effects on children’s long-term economic outcomes. The probability of earning in adulthood more than $26,090 — the average annual income for the bottom quartile nationally — goes down every year of childhood spent in nearly 1,000 counties. To highlight the substantial geographic variation on this pattern, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the 50 counties where the average incomes lost are greatest.

Click here to see the counties where the American dream is dead.

Click here to see our methodology.

Children living in Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota have the worst odds of earning a decent wage in adulthood. The annual income a child in a low-income family is likely to make as an adult declines by 1.9% each year he or she spends in Oglala Lakota. At this rate, close to $500 is lost annually from the modest income a child might have earned growing up in a different neighborhood.

The areas that produce worse outcomes for low-income children have several economic characteristics in common. For example, poverty rates in all but a handful of these counties exceed the national poverty rate of 15.5%. In 19, the poverty rate exceeds 30%.

Thirteen of the 50 counties on this list are home to or overlap with American Indian reservations. This includes the top four counties, where the vast majority of residents identify as American Indian. Native Americans are one of the nation’s most economically disadvantaged populations. Unique business regulations, poor services and poor access to amenities, as well as housing challenges are among the limitations contributing to the exceptionally poor economic mobility in these areas.

In 2014, 28.3% of single-race American Indians and Alaskan Natives lived in poverty, almost double the national average poverty rate and the highest of any racial group.

Unsurprisingly, the counties where children have the best chance for success have below average poverty rates nearly without exception. Previous research has shown upward mobility is also strongly correlated with low segregation, low income inequality, high school quality, and family structure.

These are the counties where the American dream is dead.

Source: Rivers Langley; SaveRivers / Wikimedia Commons

50. Macon County, Alabama
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$200.96
> Household income per capita: $24,917
> Poverty rate: 32.8%
> Unemployment rate: 5.3%

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Source: SpecEd / Flickr

49. Early County, Georgia
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$201.30
> Household income per capita: $30,163
> Poverty rate: 25.7%
> Unemployment rate: 4.7%

Source: Courtesy of Duane Burdick via Flickr

48. Fairfield County, South Carolina
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$201.99
> Household income per capita: $28,030
> Poverty rate: 19.6%
> Unemployment rate: 8.4%

Source: Wikimedia Commons

47. Rolette County, North Dakota
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$202.12
> Household income per capita: $22,565
> Poverty rate: 31.0%
> Unemployment rate: 8.0%

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Source: Thinkstock

46. Atlantic County, New Jersey
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$202.63
> Household income per capita: $38,869
> Poverty rate: 10.5%
> Unemployment rate: 4.8%

Source: Donald Lee Pardue / Flickr

45. Hoke County, North Carolina
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$202.99
> Household income per capita: $24,807
> Poverty rate: 17.7%
> Unemployment rate: 6.7%

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Source: Thinkstock

44. East Baton Rouge County, Louisiana
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$203.05
> Household income per capita: $35,064
> Poverty rate: 17.9%
> Unemployment rate: 4.9%

Source: GA-Kayaker / Flickr

43. Spalding County, Georgia
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$203.40
> Household income per capita: $31,155
> Poverty rate: 15.5%
> Unemployment rate: 4.7%

Source: Rudi Weikard / Wikimedia Commons

42. Greene County, Alabama
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$203.65
> Household income per capita: $27,644
> Poverty rate: 34.3%
> Unemployment rate: 6.5%

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Source: Stephen Matthew Milligan / Wikimedia Commons

41. Baldwin County, Georgia
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$204.14
> Household income per capita: $26,337
> Poverty rate: 16.8%
> Unemployment rate: 4.4%

Source: Thinkstock

40. Guilford County, North Carolina
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$204.60
> Household income per capita: $41,339
> Poverty rate: 10.6%
> Unemployment rate: 5.1%

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Source: Michael Rivera / Wikimedia Commons

39. Terrell County, Georgia
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$204.83
> Household income per capita: $26,851
> Poverty rate: 28.6%
> Unemployment rate: 6.2%

Source: Thomas R Machnitzki / Wikimedia Commons

38. Crittenden County, Arkansas
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$206.17
> Household income per capita: $27,744
> Poverty rate: 25.3%
> Unemployment rate: 5.0%

Source: Michael Rivera / Wikimedia Commons

37. Gadsden County, Florida
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$208.12
> Household income per capita: $25,763
> Poverty rate: 19.9%
> Unemployment rate: 4.8%

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Source: Ken Lund / Flickr

36. Sumter County, Georgia
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$208.25
> Household income per capita: $28,432
> Poverty rate: 21.4%
> Unemployment rate: 5.6%

Source: Billy Hathorn / Wikimedia Commons

35. East Carroll County, Louisiana
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$209.72
> Household income per capita: $18,062
> Poverty rate: 40.5%
> Unemployment rate: 11.2%

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

34. Robeson County, North Carolina
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$212.29
> Household income per capita: $24,221
> Poverty rate: 22.8%
> Unemployment rate: 9.9%

Source: csmith/dbb1 / Wikimedia Commons

33. Hancock County, Georgia
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$213.90
> Household income per capita: $17,928
> Poverty rate: 29.4%
> Unemployment rate: 9.2%

Source: Thomas R Machnitzki / Wikimedia Commons

32. Quitman County, Mississippi
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$214.07
> Household income per capita: $22,166
> Poverty rate: 33.1%
> Unemployment rate: 8.4%

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Source: Matthew Nichols / Flickr

31. Grenada County, Mississippi
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$215.29
> Household income per capita: $26,818
> Poverty rate: 20.9%
> Unemployment rate: 6.3%

Source: Thinkstock

30. St Louis City County, Missouri
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$216.00
> Household income per capita: $30,072
> Poverty rate: 24.6%
> Unemployment rate: 6.7%

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Source: Kennethaw88 / Wikimedia Commons

29. Genesee County, Michigan
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$217.08
> Household income per capita: $38,963
> Poverty rate: 13.1%
> Unemployment rate: 6.0%

Source: Courtesy of tinkerbrad via Flickr

28. Washington County, Mississippi
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$217.50
> Household income per capita: $26,530
> Poverty rate: 29.2%
> Unemployment rate: 9.1%

Source: Gerry Dincher / Flickr

27. Scotland County, North Carolina
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$218.68
> Household income per capita: $29,071
> Poverty rate: 20.6%
> Unemployment rate: 9.4%

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Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/redagain/

26. Oktibbeha County, Mississippi
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$219.02
> Household income per capita: $24,040
> Poverty rate: 28.2%
> Unemployment rate: 4.8%

Source: Matthew Nichols / Flickr

25. Bolivar County, Mississippi
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$223.01
> Household income per capita: $22,311
> Poverty rate: 33.3%
> Unemployment rate: 7.1%

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Source: Mike Norton / Flickr

24. Sunflower County, Mississippi
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$228.02
> Household income per capita: $18,895
> Poverty rate: 30.0%
> Unemployment rate: 10.6%

Source: Upstateherd / Wikimedia Commons

23. Allendale County, South Carolina
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$228.74
> Household income per capita: $21,262
> Poverty rate: 34.5%
> Unemployment rate: 6.1%

Source: Thomas R Machnitzki / Wikimedia Commons

22. Tallahatchie County, Mississippi
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$229.69
> Household income per capita: $21,421
> Poverty rate: 32.2%
> Unemployment rate: 9.1%

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Source: Courtesy of Joseph via Flickr

21. Nome County, Alaska
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$229.78
> Household income per capita: $29,589
> Poverty rate: 17.4%
> Unemployment rate: 9.5%

Source: Andrew Filer / Flickr

20. Big Horn County, Montana
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$230.08
> Household income per capita: $20,646
> Poverty rate: 29.2%
> Unemployment rate: 11.7%

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Source: Thinkstock

19. Roanoke City County, Virginia
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$233.10
> Household income per capita: $34,745
> Poverty rate: 15.9%
> Unemployment rate: 3.5%

Source: JERRYE AND ROY KLOTZ MD / Wikimedia Commons

18. Dewey County, South Dakota
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$234.61
> Household income per capita: $19,529
> Poverty rate: 33.6%
> Unemployment rate: 9.3%

Source: NatalieMaynor / Flickr

17. Hinds County, Mississippi
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$234.66
> Household income per capita: $32,627
> Poverty rate: 19.9%
> Unemployment rate: 4.9%

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Source: Joseph / Flickr

16. Leflore County, Mississippi
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$236.32
> Household income per capita: $23,465
> Poverty rate: 34.8%
> Unemployment rate: 9.1%

Source: Thinkstock

15. Richmond City County, Virginia
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$239.82
> Household income per capita: $35,536
> Poverty rate: 21.4%
> Unemployment rate: 4.2%

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Source: Thinkstock

14. Clarke County, Georgia
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$241.54
> Household income per capita: $26,220
> Poverty rate: 28.3%
> Unemployment rate: 3.7%

Source: Thinkstock

13. Claiborne County, Mississippi
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$242.03
> Household income per capita: $19,485
> Poverty rate: 32.4%
> Unemployment rate: 8.0%

Source: James Joel / Flickr

12. Kusilvak Census Area, Alaska
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$244.63
> Household income per capita: $19,557
> Poverty rate: 26.2%
> Unemployment rate: 15.1%

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Source: BriYYZ / Flickr

11. McKinley County, New Mexico
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$247.58
> Household income per capita: $19,744
> Poverty rate: 36.1%
> Unemployment rate: 6.2%

Source: Thomas R Machnitzki / Wikimedia Commons

10. Tunica County, Mississippi
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$249.41
> Household income per capita: $22,618
> Poverty rate: 33.1%
> Unemployment rate: 6.0%

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

9. Humphreys County, Mississippi
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$253.54
> Household income per capita: $21,846
> Poverty rate: 38.2%
> Unemployment rate: 10.8%

Source: Thinkstock

8. Glacier County, Montana
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$263.48
> Household income per capita: $23,252
> Poverty rate: 27.3%
> Unemployment rate: 7.4%

Source: Nathan Cardozo / Flickr

7. Coahoma County, Mississippi
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$273.41
> Household income per capita: $25,675
> Poverty rate: 35.9%
> Unemployment rate: 7.4%

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Source: Thinkstock

6. Orleans County, Louisiana
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$275.52
> Household income per capita: $31,246
> Poverty rate: 27.9%
> Unemployment rate: 5.4%

 
Source: Thinkstock

5. Forsyth County, North Carolina
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$285.69
> Household income per capita: $41,647
> Poverty rate: 11.0%
> Unemployment rate: 4.7%

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Source: Royalbroil / Wikimedia Commons

4. Menominee County, Wisconsin
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$313.34
> Household income per capita: $21,942
> Poverty rate: 28.8%
> Unemployment rate: 10.7%

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/afiler/

3. Sioux County, North Dakota
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$318.34
> Household income per capita: $16,103
> Poverty rate: 39.2%
> Unemployment rate: 4.7%

Source: Courtesy of Túlio Assis via Flickr

2. Todd County, South Dakota
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$441.06
> Household income per capita: $16,641
> Poverty rate: 48.3%
> Unemployment rate: 5.2%

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Source: Thinkstock

1. Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota
> Avg. income loss per year of childhood residence: -$483.97
> Household income per capita: $13,647
> Poverty rate: 52.3%
> Unemployment rate: 7.9%

METHODOLOGY

To identify the counties where the American dream is dead, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the effect on household income earned in adulthood for every year of childhood spent in 2,973 U.S. counties from data published by The Equality of Opportunity Project. Researchers at the organization used de-identified data from 1996-2012 tax returns to study the long-term economic outcomes of approximately 50 million children.

This annual effect on adult earnings is called the exposure effect and is measured as the percent gained or lost from the average household income for a 26 year old in the bottom quartile of U.S. earners — $26,090. We calculated the average income lost for each county by multiplying the exposure effect by this national income threshold.

The Equality of Opportunity Project publishes economic mobility-related research and data files for public use. It receives funding from Stanford University, Harvard University, the National Science Foundation, and several charitable groups, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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