A reader writes:
Your reader’s reaction (comparing the “black belt” and the NYT map [seen above]) was my first reaction, too. But the article focuses a lot on the issues of social mobility between different cities. Most of the “black belt” is quite rural (these counties may vote deep blue, but their states are GOP strongholds because not that many people live there). Not only are there fewer opportunities in these areas, but the data may be somewhat skewed by smaller response rates. The question is: why do several of the largest and most successful cities in the south (Atlanta, Memphis, Charlotte) have such low rates compared to cities in other parts of the country?
Another sharpens the points of the previous reader:
That’s a fascinating map! But sadly it speaks to racial division more than simple geography (despite what the NYT article seems to suggest). That low-mobility corner of Arizona? The Navajo reservation. West coast of Alaska? Native Alaskan villages.
Also, low mobility is not just in “the South”, or even “the deep South”, but in the specific parts that have a high percentage of African-American population: the Mississippi Delta, the black belt of Alabama (so-called originally because of its soil, but it also applies demographically). Compare the South in the mobility map to this map of county-by-county presidential election results from 2008, which in the South reflects where African-American voters are concentrated. (Or, for that matter, this map [seen right] of the last slave census, in 1860.)
Oh, that high-mobility patch on the North Dakota / Montana border? Beats me.
Another has the answer:
I wanted to make a few observations on the mobility map you posted:
1) Manifest destiny is alive and well. The West still provides opportunities for new settlers after all these years. The map demonstrates the West’s promise for a fresh start has not dried up yet.
2) Extractive resources are the best bets for mobility.
The map’s blue tinge in the Bakken in North Dakota and Montana, the gas and coal fields of Wyoming, and West Virginia and eastern Kentucky’s coal country highlight how important that mining, oil and gas, and coal are for large scale mobility. Pennsylvania’s pale interior of Marcellus fracking production also demonstrates this trend. Where can someone right out of high school rise to a six figure income right away without working on an oil rig? Also, these are the industries that will be hurt the most by efforts to mitigate carbon emissions in the face of global warming. More immediately, these trends show how efforts to slow or halt horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing act to shut the door on many people’s best chance at mobility.
3) The Ogallala Aquifer is one of our key national resources. The blue strip down the center of the country largely overlays the Ogallala Aquifer, supporting significant corn and agricultural production. This rich source of groundwater has recently gotten a little press in the Keystone XL debate, but this map shows how important the natural resource really is. As of late, concerns have arisen that the aquifer is being mined, depleting the water traveling beneath the nation’s center.
These observations avoid discussion of the Black Belt, the Rust Belt, and Indian reservations, as enough ink is spilled on those topics. However, in our move to a service-based economy, recognition of the natural resource-driven reasons European nations first set forth in conquest still apply today. Gold, cod, and timber (suitable for mast building, at least) have fallen away to oil, gas, and corn, but these resources provide the most opportunity for achieving the “American dream.”