Now it seems only parts of America offer people that opportunity.
A new study conducted by economists from Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley, is being heralded as the most comprehensive analysis of income mobility and geography. It has uncovered powerful evidence that where a child is born and grows up can affect their economic mobility.
In recent years, diminished opportunities have become the concern of both liberals and conservatives. Sharing that concern, economists have sought to examine inequality not at a particular moment, but on the path people follow over their lifetimes to get where they are.
Earlier studies have noted that education and family structure are important in escaping poverty. A two-parent family, a sound school system and people who are involved in community institutions are essential to upward mobility. In communities where these exist, chances are good that a child will be able to escape poverty.
However, poor children are not concentrated in those communities. Affluent children are, and as the study shows, affluent children tend to grow into affluent adults because of those very factors. Meanwhile, poor children, living where schools are weak, one-parent families are common and community involvement is minimal, are unlikely to break out of poverty.
The Southeast in general, and Alabama in particular, has more areas of poverty than many other parts of the country.
What the study finds is that the characteristics of a state and community in which a child is raised has as much to do with future economic mobility as something inherent in the people themselves. Interestingly, the researchers discovered that when a child is moved in an early age from a low-mobility area to a high-mobility area they did almost as well as children who had spent their entire childhood there.
Although the study only identified correlations, not causation, it will be up to future researchers to determine what made these things happen. However, because there is little chance that low-mobility children will be able to move into high-mobility areas in large numbers, the challenge seems to be how to create the conditions for low-mobility children that will improve their chances.
Today, a smaller percentage of people escape childhood poverty in this country than in Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Japan and Denmark. (The Danish Dream is more real than the American one?) This study points to reasons why. The question now is, what will we do about it?