Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

Across The Regions: Income Mobility And Access To Opportunity

A lot of attention has recently been centered on what is considered to be “the most detailed portrait yet of income mobility in the United States” The study, jointly conducted by economics faculty at Harvard and UC Berkeley, reinforces past research on the subject of income mobility, in that children born into poverty face great difficulty in rising out of poverty over their lifetime. What makes this particular study unique is how it highlights the stark differences of opportunities for lifetime income mobility across the metropolitan areas of America, which, as summarized by David Leonhardt of the New York Times, “allows researchers to consider local factors that previous mobility studies could not – including a region’s geography.”

When comparing regions, one can see potential trends:

  • Of all the metropolitan areas in America, a large contiguous swath running down the South, including Charlotte, Atlanta, Jacksonville and Birmingham, provide the lowest relative probability that an individual born in the bottom fifth of incomes could rise to the top fifth in their lifetime.
  • Areas with relatively higher proportions of college educated and wealthy individuals, such as Seattle, Boston and New York, offer a higher chance of upward mobility for those born in the bottom-fifth.
  • In the Midwest, the urbanized areas of Chicago, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Detroit and Saint Louis, all scored the lowest of any area in each of their respective states-- implying a disconnect between urban and rural regions.

There are certainly multiple factors into these trends that deserve additional scrutiny, but by chronicling the experiences of families in Atlanta, Leonhardt adds a human face to the reality of limitations faced by lower-income Americans:

“Stacey Calvin spends almost as much time commuting to her job — on a bus, two trains and another bus — as she does working part-time at a day care center. [Ms. Calvin] recently tried to rent an apartment closer to her job, in a better school district and a neighborhood closer to grocery stores. But the landlords required more income than her roughly $1,200 in monthly take-home pay, she said.”

The suggestion is then made that continued segregation and the lack of access to transportation are hindering opportunities for income mobility:

“In Atlanta, the most common lament seems to be precisely that concentrated poverty, extensive traffic and a weak public-transit system make it difficult to get to the job opportunities. ‘When poor communities are segregated,’ said Cindia Cameron, an organizer for 9 to 5, a women’s rights group, ‘everything about life is harder.’”

We know correlation is not causation. Also, we know there are other variables at play in the Harvard-Berkeley study than just characteristics of the urban geography. However, we can see that regions across the nation need help in connecting people to where they need to go.

The income mobility trends across America’s regions may reveal important similarities, but the particular circumstances in each region are nevertheless unique. Even in areas that scored well on this particular income mobility study, like Boston and New York, there is little doubt that income gaps and racial segregation still manifest a striking imbalance in the travel times for communities. This disparity in travel times and access to transportation options can also be applied to jobs, depending on what level of skills they require. To that end, there clearly is a need for in-depth analysis and actionable solutions on a regional level.

This is what Reconnecting America is about: linking transportation solutions and community development to reduce the time spent by individuals and families in transit, region by region. Families who live closer to jobs have more time to spend reading to children, engaging in their communities, or learning new skills. A better mass transit connection to work, school, and affordable homes would make it more feasible for lower-income workers to access training and skills in order to build on existing and nascent opportunities in a given region. Otherwise, in places with severely limited public transportation options, an opportunity cost exists for a long automobile commute to work or school. Even if housing opportunities in automobile-dependent areas are seemingly affordable from the outset, the magnitude of payments made by individuals and governments on gas and maintenance could replace investments of time and money into constructive elements of a healthy, integrated and educated community that could enable upward mobility for future generations.

Two recent studies that Reconnecting America completed with partnering coalitions for equitable planning, Denver’s Station Area Typology of Economic Opportunity and the Bay Area Moving to Work Project, got to the heart of these concerns.


An overlay of specialized educational opportunities for a Bay Area “industry of opportunity” with rail transit lines.
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In the Bay Area, the team at Reconnecting America identified barriers related to lower-income access to high-quality jobs, including access to training, a lack of affordable childcare, and discrimination. Transportation was the barrier that this study ultimately focused on, and it was apparent that the frequency of Bay Area’s several transit services did not necessarily cover certain income groups, colleges and work shifts as broadly as others.

Solutions were discussed by mapping out and describing key industries of opportunity, including the energy, transportation, food production and bioscience sectors. The same thing was done for the locations of employers, the workforce and the specialized institutions training for each industry. Imposed on top of all these catalysts of opportunity were existing and future passenger rail infrastructure.

In Denver, Reconnecting America comprehensively analyzed the areas surrounding the stations of the region’s burgeoning passenger rail transit system. After listening to a coalition of transportation and community advocates, regional foundations, public officials, and citizen groups, Reconnecting America calculated the relative opportunities for employers, middle-skill jobs that require a high school diploma (but less than a 4-year degree), and skills training (either in courses or on-the-job). In addition to creating this dynamic typology of each station area, policymakers in the Denver area were presented with a menu of critical actions for linking opportunities to this transit system, including strategies for transit-oriented development, business retention and facilitating connections for the “last mile” of a transit-based journey.


Breakdown of a station typology of economic opportunity in the Denver region

Breakdown of a station typology of economic opportunity in the Denver region

There is certainly more work to be done. Reconnecting America and its partners are continuing to integrate transportation systems and the communities they serve. Hopefully, it is one of many approaches that ultimately increases access to economic opportunities that allow people from all walks of life to thrive.