This map shows where Americans have the best chances of going from poor to rich

Raj Chetty

  • Upward mobility is the ability to rise to a higher level of income.
  • In the United States, income inequality means upward mobility is not equal everywhere.
  • People have a better chance of rising to the highest income level in the West, while people in the Deep South have the lowest odds.

America is known as the land of equal opportunity … but as it turns out, some parts of the country are more equal than others.

In 2013, Harvard economics professor Raj Chetty calculated upward mobility across the United States. By analyzing anonymous earnings records from million of people born from 1980 to 1982, he could track how much money people made based on where they were born.

The results were startling. Chetty found that for people born in the bottom fifth of the US income distribution, their chances of reaching the top fifth later in life vary widely based on where they’re from.

Take a look at the map below:

upward mobility

Raj Chetty

Among the data’s revelations are that in many parts of the Deep South, people have less than a 5% chance of going from the bottom income level to the top. Meanwhile, in many places in the Mountain West region, such as Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado, people have more than a 16% chance of accomplishing the feat.

According to Chetty, there are five key factors that go into this geographical disparity: segregation, income inequality, local school quality, social capital, and family structure.

Numerous policy initiatives have been proposed to flatten the gap in upward mobility. Experts have suggested building public housing in low-poverty areas instead of high-poverty areas, which would spur poorer families to move to better neighborhoods and increase their chances of success. Another possibility is expanding school choice by providing vouchers for poor families to attend better-funded schools in rich neighborhoods.

There’s no easy fix to America’s inequality problem, and the data show that it isn’t going away any time soon.

This is an update of an article originally by Elena Holodny.