Upward Mobility

In just about every election the voters hear stories about the American Dream.  A candidate will go into detail about how they went from rags to riches or lifted themselves up by their own bootstrap.  Much of this is inspired by one of Americas founding fathers, Ben Franklin.  He literally bought rags with cash and sent them to his paper mill to be pulped, while he acquired the license in Pennsylvania to print paper currency [1].  The very origin of rags to riches.  These stories are great tales and often told by the people who lifted themselves up by their own bootstrap.  These stories also lead people to believe that everyone can do the same, thus having full control of their future.  A big data study was led by Professor Raj Chetty at Harvard University that shed some light on upward mobility in America.

The Equality of Opportunity Project

Determining what factors allow a child born in the bottom fifth of the income bracket to climb into the top fifth of the income bracket required a massive amount of data.  The results of several studies can be found on the website www.equality-of-opportunity.org.  Based on the data provided, you could justify that moving a family from Memphis, TN to Dubuque, IA would greatly increase their ability to climb out of poverty.  This information suggests that there are more factors involved with upward mobility than the simple idea that one should just lift themselves up by their bootstrap.

The Geography of Upward Mobility in America

Children’s Chances of Reaching Top 20% of Income Distribution Given Parents in Bottom 20%



More racially segregated areas have less upward mobility [2].  This stands out in slides presented by Raj Chetty at a TedX Stanford [3].  While I was unable to find the original chart, I felt that it was one of the most important images in understanding the significance of segregation.  Other factors that are identified in the study [2] include race, school quality, social capital, family structure, income levels and inequality.



The American Dream is something that many people want to believe.  It has been identified that location either within our own country or in other countries, such as Canada offer a better chance of achieving American Dream [1].  The challenge remains to find policies that are in place at the local, state, and federal level that nurture the best environment for upward mobility.  One program, I found in Dubuque, IA, provides a program that teaches middle school and high school kids how to be entrepreneurs [4].  This is something that could easily be installed in places that are severely disadvantageous towards upward mobility.



This paper was inspired by a podcast which contained a glimpse into the world of poverty.  I found the information provided by Raj Chetty was worth further study.  The studies that have been done still need to be presented to the general population to be useful.  I often looked to articles, podcast, videos, and charts to help me understand the key points found in the research.  This is the way most Americans get their information.  It was good to see that there is an effort to present these studies in a user-friendly website.

Martin Luther King once said in a speech “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps” [1].  We can show that moving from one location to another can increase your chances of elevating your income bracket.  This is a great opportunity to challenge the concept that people are in total control of their future.


[1] Jill Lepore, Brooke Gladstone, and Martin Luther King Jr., “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” pp. http://www.wnyc.org/story/rags-riches, 2016.
[2] Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, and Emmanuel Saez, “Where is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobilty in the United States,” Harvard, UC-Berkeley, Lab for Economic Applications and Policy at Harvard 2014.
[3] Raj Chetty. (2016, May) YouTube TedX Talks. [Online]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2U9-Wq2ub0
[4] Dubuque Area Chamber. (2017) Dubuque Chamber. [Online]. http://www.dubuquechamber.com/programs/young-entrepreneurs/