The American Dream of equal economic opportunity for all depends on where you live, a new study has found, and Ohio’s largest metro areas, as well as the Deep South, fare poorly when compared to other places in the United States.
Dayton, Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland all rank in the bottom quarter of the 100 largest metro areas when it comes to the chances that a child raised in poverty, the working poor and parts of the middle class will rise above the economic status of their parents, according to the Equality of Opportunity Project study.
Sarah Abraham, a predoctoral fellow at Harvard University who worked on the project, said it grew out of recent evidence of increasing income inequality.
“One thing that’s held in the minds of Americans as a very important ideal is that of the equality of opportunity,” Abraham said. “And especially in recent times there have been questions of whether or not that exists and what policies may be enacted to increase the equality of opportunity or address the falling equality of opportunity.
“One of the things that is most interesting for us in this project is there is so much diversity in terms of the equality of opportunity across places within the United States.”
Some places in Minnesota and the Northeast are similar to places that are considered to have very high equal opportunities for all citizens, such as Scandinavian countries, she said.
But, she said, there are places in the southern United States that appear to be “incredibly immobile.” That means the poor stay poor.
And, when compared to the 100 largest areas studied, Dayton and other large Ohio metros, including Columbus, don’t compare well.
Claudia Colton, a professor of applied social sciences at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said the project was along the lines of a similar study she had done studying the effects of racial and economic isolation on the economic vitality of the 100 largest cities in the U.S.
“But here, they’ve zeroed down to whether the children are experiencing economic mobility,” said Colton, who is also co-director of the university’s Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development.
“I think that really hits home for our communities. Because what do people want for our children? Well, we want them to be better off than we are. And the answer is this is very dependent on where they grow up.”
Dayton zone ranks low
The study looks at 742 economic centers called commuting zones, which are groups of counties similar to metropolitan statistical areas. The Dayton commuting zone includes nine counties: Champaign, Clark, Darke, Greene, Logan, Miami, Montgomery, Preble and Shelby.
In three measures of upward mobility used in the study, Dayton ranked in the bottom quarter of the 100 largest commuter zones.
In the Dayton zone, for example, a child of parents in the bottom 20 percent of income distribution has a 5.9 percent chance of rising to the top 20 percent of earners when they are adults. That ranks 79th out of the nation’s 100 largest commuting zones.
The odds are worse in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus. Those chances for a poor kid in Columbus are only 5.1 percent, ninth-worst among the biggest 100 areas.
At the top of the range were places like Bakersfield and Santa Barbara, Calif., where children had a 12.4 and 11.8 percent chance, respectively, of rising from the bottom fifth to the top fifth of earners. At the bottom was Memphis, Tenn., and Atlanta, where those odds were 2.6 and 4.0, respectively.
The study began by looking to see if local and state tax policies were correlated with economic mobility, said Alex Olssen, another fellow working on the project, which was produced by professors at Harvard at Cal-Berkeley. They found only weak correlations, however, between tax policies and the ability of a child of limited means to rise economically.
But the fact that the prospects of children of parents with limited economic means varied so much in different regions across the country led the research to take a deeper look, Olssen said.
“In some places, kids with below median-income parents actually do quite well,” Olssen said. “In other places, they don’t do very well.”
Study: Religion matters
The researchers gathered dozens of economic and demographic variables. Among the strongest predictors of upward mobility, Olssen said, were racial segregation, economic segregation, percentage of families with married parents and percentage of religious residents.
Regions with higher measures of social capital, such as percent of households with children headed by married parents, tend to have higher chances for everybody – including children of single parents – to rise in economic status.
Similarly, in places where minorities, people in poverty and those who are affluent are more isolated from each other, poorer children have worse prospects, the study found.
In several of these measures, the nine-county Dayton zone suffers by comparison. For example, it ranked 11th-highest out of the 100 largest zones in racial isolation, which tends to limit upward mobility.
It ranked 80th in percent of religious residents, with about 40 percent of residents estimated to be religious.
It also ranked 70th out of 100 with 71 percent of families with children having married parents.
Abraham said the project’s researchers have published all of their data in hopes that other researchers will investigate further.
Colton said the project is a “terrific resource” and said she will be taking a deeper look to see what implications it has for Ohio.
“I think it’s a very important study,” Colton said. “It’s something that communities should be talking about.”