The South vs Social Mobility

Jul 22, 2013 @ 11:52am

Here’s the map from the NYT today on regions and income mobility. The redder the region the lower the mobility:

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Doesn’t it seem to you that the South stands out with particular starkness? That the most solidly Republican region offers the least equality of opportunity? Among the cities with the least opportunity: Memphis, Charlotte and Atlanta. The most social mobility? San Francisco and New York, along with Salt Lake City. The chances of rising from the bottom fifth to the top is 2.6 percent in Memphis, Tennessee and 2.2 percent in Nome, Alaska. In Seattle and Boston, the odds are five times that. I don’t know why exactly. But so many maps in America still seem to reflect two essentially different countries.

Jul 22, 2013 @ 1:38pm

Ctd …

Compare this map on social mobility:

Screen Shot 2013-07-22 at 11.20.59 AMWith this:


A reader observes:

An interesting thing to note about the map: the deep red areas in the South are the so-called “black belt,” the majority African-American counties that remain devastatingly poor. Note that the other deep red areas – northeast Arizona, southern South Dakota – are majority Native American. Interestingly, the white south – Appalachia, Cajun Country and the area around the Gulf, the Florida Panhandle – is not red at all.

To me, it says less about Red State politics (though it still does, indirectly) than it does say about how much harder it is for poor people of color to have a chance to succeed. The Red States seem pretty good about taking care of their white, GOP brethren, even the poor ones – that’s why you’ll note Utah is so mobile.

Also, note the impact of the oil boom in the Dakotas and Wyoming – the turquoise colored counties that go up the spine of Montana/the Dakotas/Wyoming that suggest the huge amount of money that has been pumped into the economies there.

Jul 23, 2013 @ 9:52am

Ctd …

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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 slaves-500x393Navajo 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.”

Jul 23, 2013 @ 5:10pm

Ctd …

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.

Jul 24, 2013 @ 9:54am

Ctd …


The popular thread continues: A reader points to this analysis of how ancient “black soil” helped make the South (Cretaceous rock units -139-65 million years old – are shown in shades of green. Older rock units are in gray, younger ones in yellow):

During the Cretaceous era, 139-65 million years ago, shallow seas covered much of the southern United States. These tropical waters were productive–giving rise to tiny marine plankton with carbonate skeletons which overtime accumulated into massive chalk formations. The chalk, both alkaline and porous, led to fertile and well-drained soils in a band, mirroring that ancient coastline and stretching across the now much drier South. This arc of rich and dark soils in Alabama has long been known as the Black Belt.

But many, including Booker T. Washington, co-opted the term to refer to the entire Southern band. Washington wrote in his 1901 autobiography, Up from Slavery, “The term was first used to designate a part of the country which was distinguished by the color of the soil. The part of the country possessing this thick, dark, and naturally rich soil …” Over time this rich soil produced an amazingly productive agricultural region, especially for cotton. In 1859 alone a harvest of over 4,000 cotton bales was not uncommon within the belt. And yet, just tens of miles north or south this harvest was rare. Of course this level of cotton production required extensive labor …


Your reader’s email providing “answers” on the South and social mobility leaves me with questions. “Where can someone right out of high school rise to a six figure income right away without working on an oil rig?” I’m not sure, but I am highly skeptical that the answer is “natural gas”. First off, a lot of these jobs being created in energy and natural gas in particular are not the sort of jobs you get right out of high school. Second, here are some salaries for available natural gas jobs in the Keystone state from a quick Google search (from

338 available jobs making $30,000+
218 making $50,000+
105 making $70,000+
39 making $90,000+
and only 13 making $110,000+

Finally, even if there are a ton of great jobs waiting for any high-school grad, this article from puts the total employment picture into perspective:

Even if shale-gas development has created 245,000 direct and indirect jobs – the number used by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, and touted by industry trade groups – that still amounts to only 4 percent of total employment in a state with 5.7 million jobs.

(As an aside, it’s also worth noting that most energy analysts, and the President of the United States, recognize that in reality natural gas will almost certainly benefit MORE from efforts to address global warming – with or without fracking – than any other energy source.)

Maybe I’m wrong, and digging something out of the ground is a better route to economic mobility than cultivating a creative skill-set that provides unique, real-world value. I remain, however, unconvinced.


I had the opportunity to reflect on your thread this morning, as I left the interstate in a torrential downpour, and instead commuted to downtown Memphis via US-51, in a route that took me through the Whitehaven suburb of Memphis, directly past Graceland. I’ve lived in the Memphis area my entire life, and I can remember the same area in the early 1980s, when it was a much whiter and more affluent area. I also have been witness to the slow decline over the past decades, and this morning spent the ride dodging flash flooding and reflecting on the white flight that has occurred in Memphis, juxtaposed against the maps showing relative social mobility.

The problem isn’t the lack of social mobility, in my mind. The problem is that the post-civil rights area resulted in the mass migration of the affluent away from those who were already destitute. In so doing, the entire economic base that supported the region shifted, and further entrenched the already stagnant economics of the minorities left behind while geographically consolidating the economic fortunes of the better off. There are abandoned factories and businesses, and crumbling schools all over this area, along with the scavenger pawn shops and dollar stores that moved in to fill some of the voids.

This, to me, is what I think of when I read about the lack of social mobility. Everything that might have contributed to mobility was simply relocated, and the skeletons left to rot.