Special Report

Counties Where the American Dream Is Dead

The American Dream is the idea that through sacrifice and hard work, a person from any background can attain success — typically characterized by upward economic mobility. While millions of Americans are a living testimony that the American Dream is still alive, there are parts of the country that tell a very different story. 

Conceptually, the American Dream is based on the assumption that success depends on one’s choices. However, broader conditions related to the community and environment — particularly during one’s childhood — can also play a considerable role.

The Equality of Opportunity Project — now part of the Opportunity Insights program at Harvard University — reviewed the estimated economic impact of growing up poor in nearly 3,000 county and county equivalents in the United States. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the report to identify the counties with the least upward mobility among low-income populations. 

To determine economic mobility, the EOP estimated the income of young adults after growing up in a low income household in each county. In the counties on this list — those with the worst upward economic mobility nationwide — income losses were the highest. A 26 year old who grew up in a low-income household in one of these counties earns an annual income of anywhere from $201 to $484 less for each year of childhood spent there than the national income per capita among 26 year olds. Depending on how many years and the average annual loss, this can amount to thousand of dollars in lost income every year.

Environmental conditions such as living below the poverty line, being raised by a single parent, or even having parents with lower educational attainment have all been shown to have a negative effect on the likelihood of upward mobility later in life. Not surprisingly, these conditions are more common than average in nearly every county and county equivalent on this list. Economic opportunity also tends to be limited in these counties, with many reporting high unemployment. Here is a look at the cities that lost the most jobs in the last five years

Several of the economically disadvantaged areas on this list contain an American Indian reservation. Native Americans commonly face extreme generational poverty resulting, in part, from their historical mistreatment by the U.S. government. There are also some unique conditions associated with reservations that may affect upward economic mobility. For example, reservation land is often communally owned, making it difficult for local residents to build wealth through homeownership. Here is a look at the states with the most Indian reservations and tribal areas

Click here to see the counties where the American Dream is dead
Click here to read our methodology