Ten Cities Where the Poor Can’t Get Rich

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Is the American Dream dead? The vast majority of Americans born into poverty are unable to make much more than their parents. According to data released earlier this week from a study spanning three decades, Americans living below the poverty line had less than a 10% chance of making it into the top tier of earners.

In some metropolitan areas, the chances for upward economic mobility were even worse. A child born in Memphis between 1980 and 1985 had just a 2.6% chance of making it into the top 20% of earners by the time he or she had reached adulthood. Based on the difference in the expected economic outcomes between children from high-income and low-income families, these are the cities where the poor cannot get rich.

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The underlying forces preventing upward mobility are a matter of debate, but there are certain characteristics these cities have in common. According to the report, poor neighborhoods tend to be clustered together or otherwise separated from other areas in the community. Based on one measure of poverty segregation, Memphis, the city with the least upward mobility, had the highest rate of poverty segregation in the United States.

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This kind of economic segregation “leads to a lot of problems,” explained Brookings Institution senior research associate Jonathan Rothwell, including lower quality of the schools in these areas. The quality of education can have a direct impact on whether a child can successfully rise out of poor conditions. In school districts with very poor populations, funding is likely very low. “Studies show the most effective teachers tend to go to schools with children from affluent backgrounds. They may feel the environment is easier to teach in -- they may get paid more.”

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Regardless of the main cause, the quality of schools in these cities was among the worst in the country during the period covered by the study. Greenville, Miss., one of the areas on our list, had the worst math and reading scores among large metro areas in the country. Albany, Ga., also among the worst, had the fourth-highest high school dropout rate in the country.

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While the authors emphasize that the causal relationship is unclear, children in the cities with low upward economic mobility were much more likely to grow up in a single-mother household. According to the report, in seven of the 10 areas, more than 30% of families were headed by a single mother. In Greenville, N.C., it was 43.3% of families.

Based on estimates calculated by “The Economic Impacts of Tax Expenditures Evidence from Spatial Variation Across the U.S.,” a joint study conducted by economists at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the 10 cities with the worst upward mobility. We considered commuter zones with more than 100,000 residents as of 2000, identifying those areas with the lowest odds of moving from the lowest income quintile as a child to the highest quintile as an adult. These odds were modeled by the economists at the universities listed above. The additional data considered came from multiple studies within the period, but are not necessarily the most current.

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These are the cities where the poor cannot get rich.

10. Atlanta, Ga.
> Upward mobility: 4.0%
> Pct. of families with single mothers: 23.0% (107th highest)
> HS dropout rate 2000-2001: 4.9% (96th highest)

Only an estimated 4% of Atlanta area's children born into impoverished families ended up making enough by age 30 to be in the top 20% of earners. Most of the children, however, were far more likely to stay at or near the bottom of the income range. Of the children born into families in the bottom quintile, likely 31% of stayed there as adults, while an additional 36.8% of these children ended up between the 20th and 40th percentiles in income. Atlanta is among the most poverty segregated large metropolitan areas in the country.

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9. Spartanburg, S.C.
> Upward mobility: 4.0%
> Pct. of families with single moms: 24.6% (74th highest)
> HS dropout rate 2000-2001: N/A

Children born into low-income families in Spartanburg were unlikely to make it into the top 20% of earners. They were even unlikely to make it to the top 40% of earners. Children born to the city’s poorest families had a less-than 12% chance of earning enough money to be in top two earnings quintiles as adults. Poverty remains a major concern in the Spartanburg area, which was once considered a potential model for how states and localities could improve their economies by recruiting businesses with favorable labor laws.

8. Albany, Ga.
> Upward mobility: 4.0%
> Pct. of families with single mothers: 35.6% (4th highest)
> HS dropout rate 2000-2001: 9.1% (4th highest)

More than 71% of children born into families within the bottom 20% of the income structure in the Albany area likely ended up in the bottom 40% of income once they reached adulthood. Meanwhile, less than 12% of children born into those circumstances likely made it to the top 40% of income by adulthood. In 2000, 35.6% of families were headed by a single mother, higher than all but three other areas. That year, more than 9% of the high school students dropped out, also a higher rate than all but three others.

7. Montgomery, Ala.
> Upward mobility: 3.9%
> Pct. of families with single mothers: 30.1% (20th highest)
> HS dropout rate 2000-2001: 4.7% (107th highest)

Children born into low-income families in Montgomery were among the nation’s least likely to earn a high wage. Less than 30% of children born into families in the bottom 20% of income ended up in any of the three highest quintiles, among the worst rates for any parts of the country. The quality of education was also a major issue for many area children. In 1996, when most of the study’s subjects were in school, Montgomery had among the lowest per-student spending nationwide. Tests scores for the area from the National Assessment of Education and Progress were also among the worst nationwide.

6. Wilson, N.C.
> Upward mobility: 3.9%
> Pct. of families with single mothers: 29.2% (23rd highest)
> HS dropout rate 2000-2001: 7.9% (15th highest)

Children from the Wilson area born into the bottom 20% of income were almost 10 times more likely to stay in that income group by adulthood than to reach the top 20%. Meanwhile, nearly 32% of children who were born into families in the top 20% of income likely ended up in the top quintile by adulthood, which was actually among the bottom third of all areas measured in the study. In the 2000-2001 school year, almost 8% of the students in the school dropped out, among the highest percentages of all large metropolitan areas. More than 29% of families were headed by a single mother, higher than most other areas.

5. Auburn, Ala.
> Upward mobility: 3.6%
> Pct. of families with single mothers: 30.4% (16th highest)
> HS dropout rate 2000-2001: 2.5% (25th lowest)

An Auburn resident born into the nation’s bottom 20% of income had a less than 30% chance of earning an income in any of the top three quintiles nationally in adulthood. The low quality of the area's schools, as measured by test scores, could have potentially limited upward economic mobility. Auburn’s average test scores of fourth and eighth graders in math and reading were among the worst nationwide. As of 2000, when many of the children in the study were living at home, the area also had a very high percentage of families headed by single mothers, at 30.4%.

4. Columbus, Ga.
> Upward mobility: 3.3%
> Pct. of families with single mothers: 31.2% (10th highest)
> HS dropout rate 2000-2001: 6.9% (29th highest)

It is extremely difficult for children from any background to earn a top-level wage in Columbus. An estimated one-in-30 children from low-income families ended up earning a top quintile income themselves in adulthood, among the lowest rates nationwide. Similarly, only an estimated 13.6% of children born into the middle-income quintile moved upward into the top grouping, also among the lowest percentages in the nation. Poverty remains a major issue in Columbus, as does malnutrition. In fact, according to a recent study, poverty and malnutrition remain major problems in many counties in West Georgia, The Ledger-Enquirer reported.

3. Greenville, Miss.
> Upward mobility: 3.0%
> Pct. of families with single mothers: 43.3% (the highest)
> HS dropout rate 2000-2001: 5.6% (63rd highest)

An estimated 39.8% of Greenville children who grew up in families in the bottom quintile of the income distribution remained there in adulthood, among the highest percentages in the country. More than 43% of children grew up in homes with single mothers, a higher proportion than all areas considered. The children in the Greenville area also struggled to perform well in school. Students in grades 3 to 8 scored lower than all other large metropolitan areas in both reading and math. Per pupil spending in Greenville schools was some of the lowest in the country.

2. Clarksdale, Miss.
> Upward mobility: 2.9%
> Pct. of families with single mothers: 35.6% (3rd highest)
> HS dropout rate 2000-2001: 4.6% (113th highest)

It is estimated that 38.5% of Clarksdale area children born into low-income families remained in the lowest income quintile as adults, one of the highest percentages in the nation. Children born into poverty also were among the least likely, behind only those born in Greenville, Miss., to end up in one of the three higher quintiles for income. Few Clarksdale area children were born into the middle class. Just 37.1% of those born in 1980 and 1981 were born into a middle-class family, among the lowest proportions of any place in the United States. Moreover, 17.4% of those children were born to teenage mothers.

1. Memphis, Tenn.
> Upward mobility: 2.6%
> Pct. of families with single mothers: 32.2% (7th highest)
> HS dropout rate 2000-2001: 6.0% (50th highest)

No area had worse economic mobility for poor children than Memphis, with just 2.6% of children raised in the bottom income quintile estimated to rise to the top by adulthood. Just 31.5% of children born into the top 20% of income were expected to remain there through adulthood, lower than all but three other places. Memphis was considered to have the most segregated areas of poverty in the country among large metro areas when the study was conducted. Meanwhile, more than 32% of children in the Memphis area grew up in homes with single mothers, more than all but six other areas.

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