The 'American Dream' is commonly defined as freedom of opportunity for all - the possibility that those who work hard enough can achieve the success and wealth they deserve. But in this age of rampant income inequalities and steadily rising poverty levels in the West, many of us are wondering if America can really claim the title of “land of opportunity” in the 21st century. Luckily for us curious minds, a team of Harvard economists collected millions of earning records of Americans born between 1980-82, in a sweeping study of 30-or-so-year-olds that sets the record straight—with hard numbers. So what did they find? How easy is it to actually make it in America?
The data collected by the Equality of Opportunity Project reveals a number of things. Not only is intergenerational mobility (aka the odds of you making more money than your parents) lower in the U.S. than most developed countries, it’s highly inconsistent throughout the 50 states. It turns out America is not exactly a single cohesive “land of opportunity”, but a body of various lands with varying levels of opportunity, and the odds of an American climbing the income ladder any higher than their parents did depends on which version of America exactly they hail from.
This particular body of research offered a few very useful insights: It correlated social trends between similarly mobile and immobile areas across the country; for instance, it found areas with less racial segregation tend towards more upward mobility (the opportunity to move from one level of income to a higher level), as do areas with higher test scores, lower dropout rates, and smaller class sizes at their schools. Let’s hope that comparing areas with poor upward mobility can at least offer policy makers—and we, the responsible people and voters —starting points for leveling out the uneven playing field in key areas of the United States.
We've ranked the 10 metropolitan areas in the U.S. that paint the grimmest picture of the American Dream. These are the cities and their greater metropolitan areas that have the lowest odds of a U.S. citizen from a bottom-fifth income family reaching a top-fifth income in their adult life; in other words, where the poor are most likely (indeed, very likely) to stay poor.
10 Cleveland, Ohio- 5.1% chance
The second biggest city in Ohio presents a strong case for racial indicators. To start, its predominantly African American population backs findings that larger black populations tend to indicate less upward mobility across the board—even for white people. This tells us, worryingly, that the effects of race on income prospects extend to a communal level. The unfortunate reality represented here is that larger black populations frequently accompany greater segregation by income and race, and that has adverse effects on opportunity for the metropolitan area as a whole. A citizen born to a bottom-income family has about a 5.1% chance of establishing their own family among the top richest fifth of society.
9 St. Louis, Missouri- 5.1% chance
After decades of “white flight” and growing racially-segregated communities, St. Louis actually resembles Detroit in some respects. Since the 1970s its population has nearly halved, and as of 2000, around 19% of St. Louis’ housing units were vacant (nearly half of which were actually abandoned, not for sale or rent). Given this kind of data, we might be tempted to think all Missourians would be tightening their belts. Make no mistake however: From the late 1990s to the mid-2000s alone—less than a decade—the average income of the richest 20% of Missourians actually grew 7%. It was just the poorest 20% of Missouri households who saw a reduction of almost 9%. The poorest section of society here has just over a 5% chance of being able to improve their situation in the proceeding generation to the point where they reach the top fifth of earners.
8 Raleigh, North Carolina- 5% chance
Unlike the first two areas on this list, Raleigh is actually one of the fastest-growing cities in America, undergoing a population boom of almost 50% from 2000-2010. The population is also mostly white, so segregation is feasibly low, and studies find it one of the most educated cities in the country. But digging a little deeper into the stats might show why the prospect of getting riches from rags in Raleigh is one of the weakest in America. For one, North Carolina's income inequalities are some of the highest in America, and they follow obvious racial biases. The median household income for the whites in Raleigh is about $25,000 more than blacks - who make up 30% of the city's entire population - while the white population earns about double that of the 11% Hispanic population.
7 Jacksonville, Florida- 4.9% chance
Florida is the first state on the list where the average income of middle-income Americans actually grew from the late 90s to mid-2000s. It was modest growth—about 3.3% according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities—when compared to the 13.2% increase enjoyed by the richest fifth. But to the poorest fifth whose income actually dropped 7.2%, it’s a pretty substantial difference. Like most metropolitan areas in the U.S., Jacksonville’s rising income gap supports the economic model aptly called the “Great Gatsby curve”, which suggests that social mobility falls as income inequality rises.
6 Columbus, Ohio- 4.9% chance
By many accounts, Ohio's largest city is a stand-out metropolitan of 21st century America. A frequent recipient of awards for its business environment, tech scene, career opportunities and travel and tourism, the population of the Ohioan capital has grown in every decade of its recorded statehood. Racial segregation is also relatively low—so where exactly might we look to explain its dismal prospects for the poor? Once again, the Great Gatsby model might have the answer: Since the late 1970s, the richest fifth of the population has seen their income rise over 50%, whereas the poorest fifth's hasn't changed at all. With only a 4.9% chance of a low-income resident reaching the income apex, Columbus reminds us how entrenched the cycle of poverty is, and is a stark example of systemic poverty underlying even the most reputable portraits of the United States.
5 Indianapolis, Indiana- 4.9% chance
While it’s encouraging that average earnings of the richest households in Indiana didn’t rise any higher between the late 90s to mid-2000s, the state has seen some of the worst trends in the country for the income of the poorest. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the average income of the bottom fifth of households dropped 23.5% in that short period, adding to a long-term decline since the late 70s. The host of the world-famous Indy 500 race might be an attractive place to the rich and middle class, but with hard times falling increasingly on the poor, what does it offer in the way of complete social opportunity?
4 Dayton, Ohio- 4.9% chance
About a two hour drive east of Indianapolis lies Dayton; as the third Ohioan on this list, it might be tempting to declare it the “state of least opportunity” in America (keep reading, though, and a reconsideration may be in order). Another piece of evidence for the segregation theory, data consistently shows that Dayton’s large black population earns much less than its white and Asian residents. A report by Washington think tank Urban Institute ranks Dayton among the bottom-fifth of white-black equity metropolitan areas in the U.S., accompanied by high residential segregation that funnels children into consistently lower-performing schools.
3 Atlanta, Georgia- 4.5% chance
At first glance, the state of Georgia seems to show some encouraging trends. For example, it’s the only state on this list that saw a long-term increase in the earnings of the bottom-fifth since the late 70s—about a 25% rise, and a potent figure in its own right. But contrast that against the whole picture: Over the same period, the richest fifth of household incomes exploded by almost 60%. Georgia actually retains the fourth highest income inequality of all U.S. states; an imbalance that apparently follows racial boundaries, because even while Atlanta's black population is of the highest proportion on this list (54% of the population), data from 2008-2012 shows that, on average, white households rake in salaries over three times the size of black households here.
2 Milwaukee, Wisconsin- 4.5% chance
According to think tank Metro Trends, Milwaukee demonstrates the worst black-white equity in the country. Their 2012 study gave its greater metropolitan area a failing grade in every key indicator of social equity between blacks and whites, including residential segregation, income gaps and imbalanced school test scores. Milwaukee’s demographics indicate a growing tendency towards “white flight” that fuel that racial segregation, especially in the suburban periphery. Taken together, these factors form one of the more persuasive arguments for the existence of structural social immobility in America, and support the Equality of Opportunity Project’s findings that the poorest families have a mere 4.5% chance of reaching the top fifth of the income distribution.
1 Charlotte, North Carolina- 4.4% chance
Not to be outdone by Ohio, North Carolina lands a second entry on the list; Charlotte is the number one metropolitan area with the lowest level of American social immobility. As in the capital city of Raleigh, the reasons for this seem to lie in the troubling scope of inequality.
The poorest 20% of household incomes in Charlotte have grown about 12.3% since the 70s, but the richest 5% have more than doubled with a growth of 105.3%. The latter now have an average income about 13 times the size of the former—an unfortunate figure, and evidence of a trend perhaps explained by the success of Charlotte’s financial sector. Downtown Charlotte recently became the second largest banking center in the U.S. after New York City, to little help, and perhaps even to the disadvantage, of its poorest residents.