Back in 2013, the New York Times gave huge publicity to a new research project on income mobility over the generations headed by then-Harvard economist Raj Chetty. The goal, a worthy one, was to find the places that were doing things right that help children move up the income ladder. Chetty’s map of high income mobility and low income mobility metropolises for working class families at the 25th percentile of income was splashed heavily in the New York Times (with pale being good upward income mobility and red being bad).
This led to much clucking about how the legacy of Jim Crow and Slavery must be holding down the children of Atlanta and Charlotte and much of the rest of the south. For example, the New York Times devoted a feature story to the low upward income mobility prospects of Atlanta and Charlotte:
A study finds the odds of rising to another income level are notably low in certain cities, like Atlanta and Charlotte, and much higher in New York and Boston.
By DAVID LEONHARDT PUBLISHED: JULY 22, 2013
There was much cluck-clucking over how the poisonous legacy of Jim Crow and Nixon’s Southern Strategy was holding down both whites and blacks in the South to this day.
I pointed out, however, that I really doubt that West Virginia is such an island of upward mobility. Instead, it’s mostly an island of white people (probably the worst off white people on average in any state, but white people, nonetheless). And whites raised at the 25th percentile of income, even West Virginia whites, tend to regress toward a higher mean income as adults than do blacks raised at the 25th percentile.
Thus, Chetty’s 2013 map of areas in red with low income mobility mostly looked to me like a map of heavily black regions plus Indian reservations.
Now in 2018, Chetty has managed to link his income data from the IRS to race data from the Census Bureau, so he can break out a map of income mobility by race from 25th percentile parents in 1994-2000 to their kids in 2014-15. And, sure enough, I was right and Chetty’s mouthpieces were wrong about the main driver of his 2013 map: race.
As I had suspected, the Old Coal Mining Belt on the edge of West Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina, and Tennessee turns out to be the worst place for working class white males to have grown up. And the best place was North Dakota, with its recent energy boom and lack of Latino immigrants to hammer down wages.
Black upward mobility is of course much lower all across America, mostly because blacks who were raised at the 25th percentile regress toward a lower mean income than whites who were raised at the 25th percentile. Strikingly, the best regions for working class black males to grow up in Chetty’s 2018 findings are … the conservative, Republican-ruled Deep South, from South Carolina to East Texas. The worst places for working class black male upward mobility tended to be the more liberal states of the upper midwest.
One thing to keep in mind is that unlike Chetty’s original assumption, these trends are not set in stone. North Dakota, for example, might plunge into depression if energy and agriculture prices on the world market declined and stayed low.
Similarly, the bad income mobility of North Carolina in Chetty’s studies is in part an artifact of North Carolina home-oriented industries, such as retail banking, construction, furniture, hardwood logging, and golf, booming during Chetty’s base period but then having been wiped out by 2008. So a lot of Chetty’s results aren’t due to long-term civic choices to do things better, as Chetty had hoped, but just due to local cycles of booms and busts that are fairly inevitable but are hard to predict.
By the way, the 2018 white male map income mobility map explains a lot about the 2016 Republican primary contest between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. Cruz did well in the prospering Great Plains while Trump did well east of the Mississippi (plus among his own people, the bridge-and-tunnel folk of Greater New York).