The New York Times opens its sweeping, front-of-the-webpage piece on upward mobility in America with an anecdote about Stacey Calvin, a woman in Atlanta who spends hours each day on buses and trains commuting to and from her part-time job at a daycare center, barely making it home on time to greet her three children after school.
That's a function, the Times' David Leonhardt writes, of "the economic geography of Atlanta." It's a thriving metropolis with a growing population and plenty of good jobs, but it's starkly divided by income. "The low-income neighborhoods here often stretch for miles, with rows of houses and low-slung apartments, interrupted by the occasional strip mall, and lacking much in the way of good-paying jobs."
The same description applies equally well to Dallas, as does the conclusion about economic segregation in Atlanta drawn by the authors of a new study on which the Times story is based: It stifles the American dream and makes it increasingly difficult for poor people to bootstrap themselves up the socioeconomic ladder.
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It's not the only factor at play. The researchers also say income mobility is lower in areas with fewer two-parent households, sub-par public education and a low level of civic engagement.
Atlanta has the lowest income mobility of any major city in the U.S., with only 4 percent of children born into the bottom fifth of family income breaking into the top fifth. The number in Dallas is 6 percent, putting us 24th out of the 30 largest metro areas. In San Jose and San Fransisco, which share the lead, it's 11 percent.
That America isn't as upwardly mobile as we all like to think isn't news, but the researchers, who crunched millions of anonymous earnings records, have produced a much more granular, much more localized portrait of the state of the American dream than has previously existed. It's not a particularly pretty picture. Cut down too much on income mobility, and society risks ossifying into castes.
The responsibility for climbing the socioeconomic ladder remains, as it always will, on the individual, but for a long time, a lot of the rungs have been missing. This study gives us a better idea of which ones.