Grand Forks Herald: Our upwardly mobile area
A recent study led by a Harvard University economist deserves a lot more attention in the upper Midwest than it has been getting.
That’s because the study of the “geography of upward mobility” confirms something that local residents have felt for a long time: North Dakota and Minnesota truly are great places to raise kids.
In fact, the data suggest that the states rank among the best places for child-rearing on Earth.
The paper by Harvard professor Raj Chetty and others looked at the adult tax forms of almost everyone born between 1980 and 1982, then compared the incomes reported there to the incomes of the individuals’ parents.
Here’s how a Washington Post columnist summarized the findings:
“Which parts of the country do you think have done the best job ensuring that children born to working-class families do better than their parents?” wrote Ezra Klein.
“California, with its booming tech industry? New York, with its financial wizards?
“Try Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin,” Klein reported.
Plus North Dakota, much of South Dakota (with the stark exception of the state’s Indian reservations), Nebraska and a number of other states lined up along the country’s midsection.
The study asks Klein’s question this way: What are the chances that a child whose parents’ income put the family in the bottom 20 percent would grow up to rank among the top 20 percent of earners?
In Atlanta, those odds are only 4 percent, meaning that only one in 25 youngsters raised in a low-income home has made such a climb. In Richmond, Va., the number is 5 percent.
But in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, those odds are nearly 14 percent, suggesting that fully one in seven young people whose family reported a low income in the 1980s has climbed the ladder to the top 20 percent.
That’sa very impressive number, according to none other than Chetty himself. “Minnesota looks like Denmark,” a country known for its economic mobility, Chetty told a Star Tribune reporter.
The economist spoke at St. Cloud State University last week and had even more good things to say. He did so by highlighting the St. Cloud region’s low-income childhood to high-income adulthood figure:
“St. Cloud, the number 12.7, it ranks at the 90th percentile of all areas of the U.S., in terms of upward mobility,” he said.
“This is an incredible, highly upwardly mobile area.”
In the Oil Patch, meanwhile, the results are nothing short of stunning. The highest upward-mobility in the United States can be found in the Williston area, which encompasses northwestern North Dakota.
There, the study found the odds of rising from the bottom to the top in terms of income to be 33.1 percent.
In other words, fully one low-income youngster in three has made the American Dream come true.
Not even Denmark has numbers that can compare. Now, of course, comes the key question: Why? What makes the Midwest in general and the upper Midwest in particular stand out? More about that in a future editorial. But for now, let’s just say that the assets North Dakotans and Minnesotans have cited for generations — good schools, safe streets, stable homes — turn out to matter tremendously after all.