The American dream means economic opportunity and mobility, especially to new generations of Americans. While debates rage on about whether the American dream is as it used to be, research certainly indicates it is not uniform across the country. While opportunities and upward income mobility exist in some areas, they are close to zero in others and have been falling sharply in recent decades.
It used to be that the vast majority of children ended up earning more than their parents. Today, however, the situation is vastly different. According to recent research on intergenerational mobility, approximately 90% of children born in the 1940s earned more than their parents, while only roughly 50% of children born in the 1980s — many of whom are entering the labor force today — do.
The Equality of Opportunity Project considered average incomes of 26-year-olds raised in the bottom quartile of income in 2,973 U.S. counties. A 26-year-old from this background who earns more than the national average for the bottom quartile is said to have managed upward income mobility.
The researchers found that 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 of this pattern, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the 50 counties where the average income losses are greatest.
Children growing up in counties with less concentrated poverty, less income inequality, better schools, a larger share of two-parent families, and lower crime rates are significantly more likely to surpass their parents later in life.