A study conducted by UC Berkeley and Harvard University researchers found that the probability of low-income children rising to higher income brackets as adults varies significantly across different metropolitan areas within the United States, with the San Francisco Bay Area among the most upwardly mobile regions.
San Francisco Bay Area children born to the bottom fifth of earners have an 11.2 percent chance of rising to the top fifth of earners during adulthood — one of the highest rates in the nation.
In addition to San Francisco, metropolitan commuter regions within California and several regions in the Northeast and West — such as New York, Boston, Seattle and Salt Lake City — displayed exceptionally high levels of upward mobility. In contrast, cities in the Southeast and Midwest, such as Atlanta, Cincinnati and Memphis, Tenn., showed some of the lowest levels of social mobility.
Professors Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren of Harvard and professors Patrick Kline and Emmanuel Saez of UC Berkeley collected anonymous records from more than 40 million individuals born during the 1980s and 1990s.
The study cited factors that may have contributed to the connection between upward mobility and geographic location as the existence of a large middle class, limited geographic segregation of races and social classes, high quality of education, a large number of two-parent households and active engagement with community or religious services.
Hendren, an economics professor who co-headed the study, points to the Bay Area’s low degree of economic and racial geographic segregation and relatively large middle class as possible reasons for the trend, but he warned that correlation does not necessarily imply causation.
“We can identify the broad factors correlated, but I think each city has its own particular constraints,” Hendren said. “But cities that have lower mobility should learn from cities with high mobility.”
According to Hendren, one of the main factors of low social mobility is the geographic segregation between classes, especially the segregation of the poor from the middle class.
Jo Ferlatte, supervisor at the Multi-Service Center of the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, believes mixed-income communities facilitate higher-quality education for low-income students but added that in Berkeley, it may be harder for those students to stay in those communities in the long run due to the city’s unusually high housing costs.
“When there are mixed-income communities, it challenges government and education systems to become more efficacious in their educating, because the higher-income people will challenge the education system to provide for their children,” Ferlatte said. “It’s generally acknowledged that they have more lobbying power. Affluent areas get better education — you can see that around the country.”
Hendren says that the data set is the first of its kind and that although it is too soon to explain the exact cause of the findings, the chronological depth of the study will prove valuable to future researchers.
“In the past, the public discourse has been centered on static income discussion because of data limitations,” Hendren said. “Now, we’re also talking about how income changes from generations.”