Upward mobility and the American Dream

An article this week in the New York Times has called attention to a recent study on upward mobility, which explored the ability of people across the country to climb the economic ladder–the quintessential American dream.

The study demonstrates that a variety of factors influence a person’s ability to rise above whatever situation they were born into, though the most important elements may not be the ones you think would have the biggest effect. According to the Times’ summary, increased tax credits for the poor and higher taxes on the rich only slightly improved income mobility. And, there was at most a modest correlation between mobility and the number of colleges and their tuition rates. Extreme wealth within a region also did not seem to suggest economic mobility.  

The biggest factors? “All else being equal, upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods,” David Leonhardt writes. “Income mobility was also higher in areas with more two-parent households, better elementary schools and high schools, and more civic engagement, including membership in religious and community groups.”

In reviewing the same information, The Atlantic calls attention to another factor: the importance of geography and location, particularly the fact that upward mobility is more likely to occur in denser cities than in certain kinds of suburbs. “The suburbs didn't quite kill the American Dream, but a particular type did,” writes Matthew O’Brien. O’Brien points to Atlanta as an example of a low-density and racially polarized suburb with one of the lowest rates of upward economic mobility. “Racial polarization might spur sprawl, which makes cities less likely to invest in their infrastructure–and underfunded infrastructure hurts low-income people of all races.”

A lot of these issues closely match up with church values and social justice teaching: of human dignity, valuing family life, commitment to education, participation in community. We’ve got our work cut out for us to give people the chance to keep dreaming.

For more on these topics, be sure to check out our recent features on poverty in the suburbs and the Catholic response to urban sprawl

Image: Flickr photo cc by sssteve.o

About the author

Elizabeth Lefebvre

Elizabeth Lefebvre is a writer living in Chicago.