Housing Complex

D.C. Area More Upwardly Mobile Than Most

The New York Times published a wonderful interactive study today that breaks down income mobility by geography. The most upwardly mobile areas are in the Great Plains—in some parts of North Dakota, a person born into the bottom income quintile has more than a 30 percent chance of ending up in the top quintile—and major cities on the west coast and in the Northeast. The least mobile areas are almost all in the south, where people in some areas have less than a 3 percent chance of striking it rich if they're born poor.

So what about D.C.? The region, which includes surrounding counties in Maryland and Virginia, actually fares pretty well, at least compared to the rest of the country. At every income level, a person born in D.C. is likely to outearn the average American born to parents of the same income.

That pattern is most pronounced for poor children. D.C.-area children whose parents are the poorest of the poor—in the first percentile of income—will, on average, end up in the 36th percentile as adults:

In fact, children whose parents are in the 16th percentile (earning $22,000 a year) and children whose parents are in the 74th percentile (earning $96,000 a year) are both likely to end up in the middle quintile themselves:

Now, does that mean everyone's born to a level playing field? Of course not. Nine percent of the very poorest children will end up as top earners, compared to 36 percent of the very richest children. And while the D.C. area's 9.5 percent odds for children born into the poorest quintile to make it into the richest quintile puts us above most of the country, it's still behind our usual rivals of New York (9.7 percent), Boston (9.8 percent), Los Angeles (9.6 percent), and San Francisco (11.2 percent)—though we beat Atlanta (4 percent) and Chicago (6.1 percent) handily.

One curious data point: For every single parents' income level in D.C., a child is more likely to end up in the lowest quintile than in the second-lowest income level. If any statisticians among you can make sense of that, please enlighten me in the comments.

  • MJ

    It's not really a statistical analysis you need to explain that phenomenon. You need to explain the state of the world that results in that outcome.

    It may be a reflection of the state of the economy right now. It's possible that the jobs that would put individuals in the second lowest income level are not widely available anymore. Are those jobs that used to be in DC, but have since moved elsewhere, leaving relatively more jobs that would put someone in the lowest income level?

    You'd need to know whether what time period the data covers and whether there's been a change or whether it's always been this way in DC.

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