The New York Times ran a story today about a new study out of Harvard which analyzed income mobility in the United States.
The study — based on millions of anonymous earnings records and being released this week by a team of top academic economists — is the first with enough data to compare upward mobility across metropolitan areas. These comparisons provide some of the most powerful evidence so far about the factors that seem to drive people’s chances of rising beyond the station of their birth, including education, family structure and the economic layout of metropolitan areas.
I was fortunate enough to get to have dinner with Raj Chetty, one of the report’s authors, when I was at a debate tournament in Boston where he gave me and my debate partner (who is also Chetty’s nephew) a sneak peak at his research.
It’s really amazing what economists can do with the wealth of data that exists today. I remember Mr. Chetty explaining that they can analyze the microeconomic affect of one person moving from one zip code to another zip code and aggregate millions of these stories to create a broader tale of income mobility in the United States. That story is not the story we are all used to hearing; while income mobility in the South dismal, many other parts of the country are comparable to some of the Scandinavian countries. It’s just the average that is so problematic.
There is a really cool interactive that I could have spent hours playing with where you can see what income mobility is like in your city. It is worth noting that Atlanta, my hometown, ranks very poorly:
The comparison of metropolitan areas allows researchers to consider local factors that previous mobility studies could not — including a region’s geography. And in Atlanta, the most common lament seems to be precisely that concentrated poverty, extensive traffic and a weak public-transit system make it difficult to get to the job opportunities.