Which States Have the Most Economic Mobility?

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Americans love economic mobility. It’s kind of a founding myth for us: We see ourselves as having broken free from rigid, aristocratic Europe to form a meritocracy that guaranteed a chance to move up in the world. Though there has been much talk lately about rising income inequality in the United States, what has worried pundits on both the left and the right has been recent reports that Americans aren’t as economically mobile as citizens in other Western nations.

The Pew Economic Mobility Project has been studying this phenomenon, and is out with a new report examining which regions in America are the most and least mobile. Researchers looked at Americans ages 35 to 39 and then examined their incomes ten years later. The study covered the time period between 1978 and 2007, and tackled three different measures of income mobility: absolute mobility (as measured by inflation-adjusted income growth over time), and relative upward and downward mobility — i.e. movement up or down the socio-economic ladder.  In other words, are Americans born poor becoming rich and vice-versa?

So which states come out on top? The Mid-Atlantic and New England are the most economically mobile regions in America, with Maryland, New Jersey, and New York having better-than-average mobility in all three measures studied. Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Utah score aboved average in two of the three measures.

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The least economically mobile states in the nation are Louisiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina — scoring below average in all three measures of mobility. Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas were below average in two of the three measures.

Interestingly enough, geographic mobility doesn’t appear have a large effect on economic mobility. That is, it doesn’t matter if you’re born in Maryland or you move there – you’re more likely move up the economic ladder either way. According to Erin Currier, Project Manager of the Pew Economic Mobility Project, individuals who do move states do have better economic mobility, but more than two-thirds of Americans stay in their birth state for the remainder of their lives. Therefore, “Geographic mobility might help an individuals’ economic mobility, [but] it’s not really driving state-level findings as a whole.”

So why are some states more economically mobile than others? This study doesn’t seek to specifically address the causes of relative mobility between states, but there are some important factors that the Economic Mobility Project has found are essential to promoting economic mobility overall, and these include things like like “educational attainment, savings and asset building, and neighborhood poverty during childhood,” according to Currier.

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So states with poor economic mobility could probably do more to promote things like access to education and financial literacy, but there are other broader reasons why Southern states appear to do so badly in this study. At least from the point of view of relative mobility, states that are much poorer start out at a big disadvantage. All three of the least economically mobile states are also among America’s poorest. Currier gives the example of Florida. When compared with the poorer Southeast, Florida has much better economic mobility than when compared to the nation as a whole. She says,

“You can imagine that the rungs of the earnings ladder are farther apart for the nation as a whole than they are in any region of the country. So by looking at people’s relative mobility using the earnings distribution of their region, we can answer a different question about their mobility prospects.”

Of course, states don’t have this excuse when it comes to absolute mobility, and by even this measure the Mid-Atlantic states dominate at the expense of the Southern U.S. If you want to learn more about how your state fairs, check out Pew’s interactive map here.

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