Moving up grows harder for some Americans, study says

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Residential and economic mobility remain a part of life in the U.S., though a new study shows that the opportunities for both are more limited for some than in the past.

Economic mobility, or the ability to move beyond the economic circumstances of one’s parents, has long been tied to residential mobility, or the ability to move to places with greater opportunity. But the author of the study, Scott Winship, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a research organization in New York, cautioned that the linkage doesn’t always work.

“People did better when they moved,” Winship said in a telephone interview. “But moving did not make them do better.”

A growing concern among political leaders on the left and the right that declining residential mobility has reduced economic opportunity for Americans prompted Winship’s study.

Economic mobility represents more than merely an index; seeking to better one’s circumstances is part of the fabric of the nation’s identity, or as Winship put it in his report: “Upward economic mobility has traditionally been among America’s core ideals.”

But Winship found that upward economic mobility is low for less-educated and black Americans. Winship suggested that in order to put these groups on a more equal footing, policies could be designed to promote greater residential mobility, including by reforming social and economic safety nets and curbing inflation in housing costs.

Winship’s study draws on the work of Raj Chetty, a Harvard University economist, including a paper he wrote that was published in May. Chetty’s study also focused on residential moves and how they affect the economic fortunes of those involved, particularly young people as they grow into adulthood.

The New York Times used Chetty’s research to help create an interactive feature on its website that lets viewers see which counties in the U.S. are best, average, and worst for their effects on a child’s income once he or she reaches adulthood. The figures also vary based on parental incomes in the 25th, 50th, 75th, and 99th income percentiles.

When he began researching residential mobility, Winship found the story to be much more complicated than a general decline in residential mobility as indicated by some short-term measures. The data suggest more Americans move less frequently than they did a couple of generations ago. Yet at key times of life, there hasn’t been much change, he said.

“To some extent, residential mobility is not in decline,” Winship said.

But in order for a move to prompt upward economic mobility, Winship found that it had to occur at particular junctures in life, such as between adolescence and adulthood, and the move had to go across states or U.S. regions.

For one group, African Americans, residential mobility has declined from the 1950’s onward. But Winship was careful to note that this number was falling from a high peak of mobility during the early decades of the 20th century, a period known as the Great Migration. During that time, about 6 million African American migrated from the South to urban areas in the Northeast, Midwest and West.

Even though Winship’s study allays the fear that most Americans are not moving as much as they used to do, his findings also include some startling data. If a child is born in the poorest fifth of the population, he or she has a 43 percent chance of remaining in that income segment.

“Whether or not things are getting worse, they are worth worrying about,” Winship said. “America can do better than this.”