Foon Rhee

To make it to middle class, location matters

President Barack Obama stumps for his middle-class agenda at the University of Kansas on Thursday.
President Barack Obama stumps for his middle-class agenda at the University of Kansas on Thursday. The Associated Press

A lot of policy wonks and politicians are pointing out that California has the nation’s highest poverty rate – 23 percent, when cost of living is taken into account.

That’s certainly a worrisome statistic, embarrassing even.

But for me, the numbers that are more interesting – and, in a way, more hopeful – have to do with making it to the middle class and beyond.

This is about whether the American dream is still real. It turns out that the answer depends quite a bit on where you happen to grow up.

Overall, upward mobility hasn’t budged much, even as the gap between rich and poor has widened. About 9 percent of children born in 1986 in the poorest 20 percent of households were likely to reach the top 20 percent, compared to 8.4 percent of poor kids born in 1971, according to a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Groundbreaking research, however, shows that the chances of climbing the income ladder are significantly higher in some metropolitan areas than others. For instance, in Atlanta, only 4 percent of children raised in the bottom fifth of households rise to the top fifth, but nearly 10 percent do in Boston.

Moving up happens less often for poorer children in the Southeast and Midwest, while it is more common in the Northeast and West, according to the study by top economists at UC Berkeley and Harvard. (Geographic differences don’t mean that much for well-off children; the rich tend to stay rich no matter where they grow up.)

Mobility is generally better in California, but just as poverty is worse in the Central Valley than along the coast, there’s wide variation in metro areas across the state.

The odds of making it to at least the middle class are 8 percent for poor children in the Eureka area and 8.3 percent in Fresno, but 11.2 percent in San Francisco and San Jose and 11.8 percent in Santa Barbara. The number is 10 percent in Sacramento, 10.2 percent in Modesto, 10.4 percent in San Diego and 9.6 percent in Los Angeles.

The researchers found that mobility tends to be higher in areas where the poor are less concentrated and there’s a bigger middle class, and in areas with more two-parent households, better elementary and high schools and more civic engagement.

I suppose those factors aren’t too surprising. But they tell us that poor children in some places need more of a helping hand up the income ladder – from the religious community, from nonprofits and volunteers and, yes, even from government.

In his State of the Union speech this week, President Barack Obama highlighted – both in his rhetoric and in his proposals – the importance of upward mobility. He wants to cut taxes for the middle class, offer free community college and give more aid to working mothers and families with young kids.

In the runup to the 2016 presidential election, voters are going to hear a lot of talk and promises about strengthening the middle class, from Democrats and Republicans alike. There’s widespread agreement that not enough Americans are sharing in the recovery from the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Polls show that many have lost faith that their children will be better off than they are.

America is still a land of opportunity, but not for everyone. It’s a shame that for too many children, where they grow up can matter more than character and hard work.


The chances that a child raised in the bottom fifth of households by income will rise to the top fifth in these metro areas:

▪ Fresno, 8.3 percent

▪ Los Angeles, 9.6 percent

▪ Sacramento, 10 percent

▪ San Francisco, 11.2 percent

▪ Santa Barbara, 11.8 percent

Source: The Equality of Opportunity Project