Special Report

Counties Where The American Dream Is Dead

The American Dream is the ideal that through equality of opportunity, any person working hard can achieve upward economic mobility. While millions of Americans believe the American Dream is still alive, the experiences of millions of others tell a very different story — especially in some parts of the country.

Conceptually, the American Dream is based on the assumption that, given equal opportunity, success depends on one’s choices. However, broader conditions related to the community and environment — particularly during one’s childhood — can severely hinder equality of opportunity and any chance of achieving the American Dream.

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 where residents have the worst chances of upward mobility. It is likely that economic conditions in many of these areas have worsened since the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately harmed poor communities.

The EOP estimate compares the income of young adults who grew up in low-income households in each U.S. county to the income for 26-year-olds nationwide in the lower quartile of the income distribution. To measure the economic advantages or disadvantages of living in a particular county, the EOP calculated the change in income due to one year of residence.

In the counties on this list — the 50 counties with the worst upward economic mobility nationwide — annual 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, compared to the national income per capita among 26-year-olds. Depending on how many years a person lived in these counties and the average annual loss, income loss can amount to thousands of dollars every year.

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

Environmental conditions such as living below the poverty line, living in single parent households, and having parents without a college degree have all been shown to have a negative effect on the likelihood of upward economic mobility later in life. Not surprisingly, these conditions are more common than average in nearly every county and county equivalent on this list.

Race is also a major determining factor of economic mobility. Over recent generations, while Hispanic Americans have moved up significantly in the income distribution across recent generations compared to white Americans, black Americans have moved downward.

In the March 2018 study, Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States: An Intergenerational Perspective, researchers found: “Black Americans have substantially lower rates of upward mobility and higher rates of downward mobility than whites, leading to large income disparities that persist across generations. Conditional on parent income, the black-white income gap is driven entirely by large differences in wages and employment rates between black and white men; there are no such differences between black and white women.”

On this list, the share of the population who identify as black is larger than the national share of 12.3% in 39 counties, and black residents comprise the majority of the population in 21 of the 50 counties.

Other areas on this list contain an American Indian reservation. Native Americans commonly face extreme generational poverty resulting, in large part, from their historical mistreatment by the U.S. government. Here is a look at the states with the most Indian reservations and tribal areas.