The Equality of Opportunity Project: A research study conducted by Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley.

March 13, 2014

The United States is often hailed as the “land of opportunity,” a society in which a child's chances of success depend little on her family background. Is this reputation warranted? We show that this question does not have a clear answer because there is substantial variation in intergenerational mobility across areas within the U.S. The U.S. is better described as a collection of societies, some of which are “lands of opportunity” with high rates of mobility across generations, and others in which few children escape poverty.

We present a new portrait of social mobility in the U.S. by compiling statistics from millions of anonymous earnings records. Our core sample consists of all children in the U.S. born between 1980-82, whose income we measure in 2011-12, when they are approximately 30 years old.

Using these income data, we calculate two measures of intergenerational mobility. The first, relative mobility, measures the difference in the expected economic outcomes between children from high-income and low-income families. The second, absolute upward mobility, measures the expected economic outcomes of children born to a family earning an income of approximately $30,000 (the 25th percentile of the income distribution).

We construct measures of relative and absolute mobility for 741 “commuting zones” (CZs) in the United States. Commuting zones are geographical aggregations of counties that are similar to metro areas but also cover rural areas. Children are assigned to a CZ based on their location at age 16 (no matter where they live as adults), so that their location represents where they grew up. When analyzing local area variation, we rank both children and parents based on their positions in the national income distribution. Hence, our statistics measure how well children do relative to those in the nation as a whole rather than those in their own particular community.

We find substantial variation in mobility across areas. To take one example, children from families at the 25th percentile in Seattle have outcomes comparable to children from families at the median in Atlanta. Some cities – such as Salt Lake City and San Jose – have rates of mobility comparable to countries with the highest rates of relative mobility, such as Denmark. Other cities – such as Atlanta and Milwaukee – have lower rates of mobility than any developed country for which data are currently available.

Next, we analyze what drives the variation in social mobility across areas. The spatial patterns of the gradients of college attendance and teenage birth rates with respect to parent income across CZs are very similar to the pattern in intergenerational income mobility. The fact that much of the spatial variation in children's outcomes emerges before they enter the labor market suggests that the differences in mobility are driven by factors that affect children while they are growing up.

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To learn more about this project visit The Equality of Opportunity Project.

Geography Executive Summary and Memo January 2014.pdf487.84 KB
Trends Executive Summary January 2014.pdf133.9 KB
Improving Equality of Opportunity in America4.02 MB