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In The Boston Area, Surprisingly Strong Economic Mobility

This article is more than 7 years old.

Try as it might, this city has trouble shaking a reputation for stratification. For balkanization.

It's Brahmins v. Irish. White v. black. Haves v. have-nots.

But on at least one vital measure — economic mobility — the city's lines are more porous than its reputation would suggest.

That's according to a sweeping new study by top-flight economists at Harvard University and the University of California-Berkeley that observers are calling the most detailed look yet at the American income ladder.

Drawing on millions of economic records, the study maps mobility and finds that, when it comes to escaping poverty, where you live matters.

Southern and Midwestern cities like Chicago, Tampa and Jackson, Miss., don't fare so well by this metric.

Residents of Northeastern, Great Plains and Western cities like Boston, Salt Lake City and San Diego, by contrast, have an easier time moving up the ladder.

Lighter colors indicate areas where children from low-income families are more likely to move up the income ladder. (Source: equality-of-opportunity.org)
Lighter colors indicate areas where children from low-income families are more likely to move up the income ladder. (Source: equality-of-opportunity.org)

"It's great to see Boston high on the list," said Harvard economist Raj Chetty, a co-author of the study. "I would not have necessarily expected that."

The study measures, among other things, the chances of a child raised in the bottom fifth of the income distribution rising to the top fifth.

In the Boston area, 9.8 percent of kids in the bottom quintile make the leap — among the highest rates in the nation.

Here's a sampling of midsize and large American cities.

And here's a New England sampling.

The report draws no definitive conclusions about what separates one region from another. But it does find several factors that correlate with greater mobility. Among them: two-parent households, quality schools and church membership.

Another factor: the geography of income. When the poor are better dispersed among the local middle class, they have a better chance of breaking out of poverty. And Boston, according to the study, is much more economically integrated than cities like Atlanta and Milwaukee that struggle with mobility.

Tiziana Dearing, associate professor of Macro Practice at the Boston College Graduate School of Social Work, cautioned that the city struggles with plenty of concentrated poverty.

A Boston Foundation report from 2011 points to deepening poverty in the Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan neighborhoods.

But she said the city has shifted in important ways. "We are much better integrated, much more equal, much less overtly racist than we were 20 years ago — and than most of America thinks that we are now," she said.

Ben Swasey built the infographics for this post.

This program aired on July 24, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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