Last summer there was some back-patting in some circles when it was revealed that famously blue cities like New York and Boston have higher rates of extreme income mobility (bottom quintile to the top quintile) than red-state cities like Atlanta and Charlotte. Proof of the blue state model!

Of course, statistics are funny things. Especially when you’re looking at a nation as wildly varied as ours. Without a doubt, it reflects well on a city if poor people raised there go on to become economically successfully. On the other hand, some places are more amenable to being in the top quintile than others. For instance, if you’re born and raised in SF or NY and you are successful it’s easier to rise to the top quintile than if you’re born and raised in Atlanta or Charlotte. One big thing that Atlanta, Charlotte, San Francisco, and New York all have in common is that if you’re born there, you have little to have to leave. So the ceilings matter.

New York and Boston are not only hubs of opportunity, but if you’re successful employers have to pay you more to keep you there because it’s so darned expensive. People from these cities often get the idea that making $100,000 a year – enough to get you into the top quintile – qualifies as “middle class” because you can make that much and still not be able to afford the better things in life. This effect is limited, though, by the decreased probability of being raised in the bottom quintile since wages at the bottom tend to be (I think?) higher as well.

If you doubt the effects these sort of things have, and if saying this comes across as statistic-denialism, consider what attaching impotance to these numbers mean. Namely, that Boston are owned by many rural towns you’ve ever heard of. Los Angeles is actually less of a hub of this sort of mobility than Dillon, Montana, home of the mighty Dillon Beavers football team, a tiny state college, and not much else. Or Butte, the economically distressed city to its north that you maybe have heard of. I’m not even talking about places like West Dakota where such mobility can be easily explained.

So what’s the deal with these places? Are they that awesome? Well, the Beavers may be awesome, but by and large they are not. They do boast, unlike rural areas in the south, the ability to educate youngsters who will disproportionately go on to make good money. Which isn’t unimportant. But ultimately what they have is a lot of people who are poor on paper but due to lower costs of living aren’t poor-poor like they would be in other parts of the country. So they look disproportionately successful.

Which isn’t nothing, of course. Such places are important despite having unimpressive economic numbers generally because the “brain drain” they experience becomes a “brain gain” elsewhere (though I don’t have access to the statistics, I doubt these people are making $100,000 in Butte). It’s also a reason to be proud, just as it’s a reason for San Francisco to be proud of their ability to generate the sorts of salaries that place it so high on the hierarchy. But without a better accounting of how this statistical mobility is happening, it’s not easy to glean much more than that.

The article does investigate the average wealth of various areas if only to dismiss it. They are right that there is more to the story than that. Some have suggested that racism and segregation are the southern issue, but as the article points out mobility for southern whites is pretty low as well and Atlanta is actually less segregated than New York and Los Angeles by some measures. Race alone isn’t the issue, as the blue cities are just as multicultural as the red-state cities. Chicago, Atlanta, and Charlotte are sufficiently outside the norm that we ought to be looking at why the mobility isn’t happening. I have a feeling it’s something that’s going to be had to address on a governmental level.


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