The South vs Social Mobility, Ctd

Screen Shot 2013-07-22 at 11.20.59 AM

Several readers have voiced skepticism over our coverage of this map and the accompanying piece from the NYT:

I would be interested to see that map compared to a map of “chances anyone in this county is an earner in the top fifth.” Some parts of the country simply have no or very few opportunities that earn at those levels, so it should be no surprise that you find few people “rise” to that level – with the inverse true for places like NYC, SF and Seattle. To study mobility, unobscured by regional differences in wealth, one would need to re-calibrate to the quintiles within each county, rather than comparing local samples to national averages.

Another reader:

Quite clearly the map shows (and the original paper makes clear) the importance of race, whether that be African-American or Native American. But this does not mean that somehow the Red States only care about taking care of their “white, GOP brethren,” as one reader implied. What does the data (pdf) from the paper say? Check out Table 5. Two of the best negative correlations with intergenerational mobility are the county’s rate of divorce and its share of single moms – two things that disproportionately affect African-Americans and Native Americans.

Utah, meanwhile, confounds your “two Americas” reading. Look at the blue area in Utah in the map you posted. This is because of Mormonism. Check out this blog post, for an interesting discussion on the similarities between Utah and Denmark, two places of high intergenerational mobility.

Another goes into much more detail on the previous points:

The graphs you’re presenting from the New York Times article are HIGHLY misleading.

First off, they look at social mobility without taking into account the regional differences in cost of living. From the chart: “The top 5th is equal to family income of more than $70,000 for the child by age 30, or more than $100,000 by age 45.” Anyone who’s anyone knows that living on $70,000 per year income on the Upper West Side of Manhattan is vastly different than living on $70,000 per year in the rural South.  In one place you are “poor” and the other you can live like a king.  I’ll gladly earn $65,000 and live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama vs. earning $75,000 and living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Yet, in one case I haven’t reached the top 5% of income earners while the other I have.  This is clearly not true in reality.

Without a cost of living adjustment, the data is essentially meaningless. Income tells you next to nothing. What you can buy with that income is what matters! And that varies greatly by region. The chart essentially tells you where the dollar is worth more and where it is worth less.

Secondly, look at the people presented in the article as the “poor” struggling to attain a middle-class lifestyle. Stacey Calvin is presented as a “poor” person struggling to enter the middle class in suburban Atlanta. She has three kids. Is a single mom. Works only part time. Yet, from the picture of her, has the latest in smartphone technology, a three-bedroom home, and remote-control cable television. She and her kids are wearing fashionable clothing. This is NOT the picture of someone mired in poverty.

The next example is Michael Novajovsky, who is an educated network engineer.  He is married, three kids, has a beautiful house (as far as one can tell from the picture), earns $27/hour for a temporary job. From his Facebook page, you can see he isn’t mired in poverty either.

Lastly, how about breaking the data down by zip code or neighborhood.  New York City is not homogenous.  It includes Harlem, the Upper West Side, etc.  Simply aggregating numbers of very different neighborhoods as one is highly misleading.  Especially compared to a place like Atlanta that is spread much further about geographically.


I happen to live in Atlanta and recognize the difficulty in getting from the south side of the metro Atlanta area to where jobs are located to the north side of the metro Atlanta area if you rely on public  transportation. However, I respectfully submit citing the NYT article in support of your contention “the South” (which I guess does not include Red State/low-tax Texas by your assessment of the NYT map) seems at times to be a different country is cherry picking items from the story. As evidenced by the map itself, the NYT reporter stated “Climbing the income ladder occurs less often in the Southeast and industrial Midwest, the data shows, with the odds notably low in Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, Raleigh, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Columbus.Would be interested in your thoughts on why the same problem being present in the industrial Midwest fits with your interpretation of the article.

I think the map can bear many different interpretations. I focused on the obvious fact that race is a factor, and that the band in the South correlates very closely to slave-ownership patterns in the past. There may well be other explanations for other regions – but the Southern aspect is what immediately struck me, and, I’d say, anyone who looked at it. Update from a reader:

I wish you would stop saying that race explains the differences in social mobility found in the recent study.  The authors, in their summary of their findings (pdf), explicitly state that the differences remain after controlling for race.

Unfiltered feedback on our Facebook page.