Ithaca, N.Y. — The American Dream is dead — depending on where you live.

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A story published on Vox.com this week details vast differences in “intergenerational mobility” depending on location. The Vox story is based on a groundbreaking 2013 study by the Equality of Opportunity Project, which is spearheaded by economists at Harvard and Berkeley.

What did the researchers find? That your odds of making it from poverty into the middle class are highly dependent on where you are born — and that, therefore, the state of the American Dream is best understood by looking at different parts of the country, rather than evaluating it as a monolith.

This map shows the average income percentile of those who grew up in homes below the median income, according to Vox.com.

The gaps are striking. In San Francisco, for instance, children growing up in the bottom fifth income bracket have an 11 percent chance of ending up in the top fifth of the income bracket.

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, children who start out in the bottom fifth of the income bracket only had a 4 percent chance of ending up in the top fifth.

In other words, regardless of the reason, poor children in San Francisco are almost three times as likely as poor children in Atlanta to make the jump into the upper class.

How does the Ithaca area stack up? The researchers have a few ways of looking at it — and we did our best to parse through their data and draw conclusions from it.

1 — ‘Absolute Upward Mobility’
2 — Ithaca compared to national, state numbers
3 – The ‘Absolute Mobility’ problem
4 — Another way of looking at the American Dream
5 — If I’m a rich person in Ithaca, will my kids also be rich?
6 — What about kids who are born into abject poverty?
7 – Further reading

(If we missed your question about Ithaca and income mobility, email me at jstein@ithacavoice.com)

1 — ‘Absolute Upward Mobility’

Is the American Dream alive in Ithaca?

Perhaps the best way of evaluating that question is by looking at what the researchers define as our “Absolute Upward Mobility,” or the average economic outcome of a poor child.

Each city gets its score based on where poor children (those in the bottom 25 percent) end up as adults relative to the national income. (The data comes from records of more than 50 million children born in American between 1971 and 1993, according to The Atlantic.)

Ithaca’s score was 43.3 — meaning that the average child who started among the bottom 25 percent ended up with an income of 43.3 percent the national income.

That sounds pretty good, right?

2 — Ithaca compared to national, state numbers 

Well, maybe. But let’s try to get some perspective on this 43.3 number by looking at the following two additional factors:

A — Ithaca is pretty average

Ithaca’s score is only slightly higher than the national average, of 41.4.

There’s a range of municipalities with both significantly higher and significantly lower mobility, putting Ithaca more or less in the middle of the pack.

For instance, the average poor child in Odessa, Texas, ends up in the 51st percentile; someone of the same demographic from Atlanta, Ga., is likely to end up in the 36th.

B — Looking at our Upstate neighbors

Many of our Upstate neighbors measure up just as well or even better than Ithaca.

Here’s how our 43.3 percent scores stacks up with our neighbors (Remember, the higher the better):

» Rochester | 41

» Syracuse | 41.3

» Utica | 43

» Albany | 43

» Binghamton | 42.6

» Buffalo | 42

» New York City | 43.9

One way of reading these data points is to say that the American Dream is very much alive — in the U.S., in New York State and in Ithaca.

Indeed, this is how many journalists and researchers reacted to the study.

“The odds of moving up — or down — the income ladder in the United States have not changed appreciably in the last 20 years,  according to a large new academic study that contradicts politicians in both parties who have claimed that income mobility is falling,” wrote David Leonhardt of the New York Times.

The title of Leonhardt’s story is, “Upward Mobility in the U.S. Has Not Declined.” And if we accept that as true, and we accept that Ithaca is slightly ahead of the rest of the U.S., then — presumably —the American Dream is doing fine here.

3 — The ‘Absolute Mobility’ problem

There are a few problems, however, with this reading of the data.

For one, it neglects growing inequality — a related but separate problem hitting Ithaca particularly hard. (Ithaca ranks #2 out of the 363 metropolitan areas in the U.S. for growing income inequality.)

Perhaps of more fundamental importance is declines in what’s known as “absolute mobility.” This metric measures people’s annual incomes relative to their parents’.

It turns out that we aren’t doing so well by this measurement. Because economic growth has slowed, people’s incomes relative to their parents’ have also slowed — regardless of upward mobility.

Leonhardt makes this point in the story cited above:

“The growth rate of absolute mobility has slowed, as economic growth has slowed to a disappointing level over the last 15 years.

The incomes of middle-class and poor families have slowed even more sharply, because a large share of recent economic gains have gone to a small slice of affluent workers — often described in political shorthand as “the 1 percent.”

This means that even as the odds of jumping into the middle class remain roughly the same, the real gains for poor and middle class Americans aren’t materializing. (This could be the topic of a separate Ithaca Voice explainer.)

Perhaps this accounts for the widespread perception that we are moving in the wrong direction as a country.

4 — Another way of looking at the American Dream

Are there other ways of evaluating the chances of Ithaca’s poor in finding financial success?

We’ve already looked at the odds of the bottom 25 percentile of making it to the middle class. But what percentage of poor Ithaca residents can make it not just into the middle class but higher still — into the upper class?

Unfortunately, the researchers don’t appear to provide this data by county. Instead, they include Ithaca in what’s called the “Elmira region” in the data set.

Here’s what they say: If you’re born into the bottom fifth percentile in the Elmira region, you have an approximately 10 percent chance of making it into the top fifth.

More simply put (perhaps too oversimplified): One in 10 poor children born in our region will die rich.

Again, that’s slightly better than the national average. Across the U.S., 8 percent of poor children make it to the top fifth of their age group. “The rate was nearly identical for children born a decade earlier,” The New York Times reports.

By this measure, the Ithaca/Elmira arae actually does substantially better than most (particularly when compared to the Deep South).

Here are the odds of going from bottom fifth income bracket to the top fifth, according to The Times:

» Elmira (including Ithaca) | 9.7 percent

» Buffalo region | 7.3 percent

» Syracuse | 8 percent

» Albany | 8 percent

» Atlanta | 4 percent

» New York City | 9.7 percent

» San Francisco | 11.2 percent

5 — If I’m a rich person in Ithaca, will my kids also be rich?

These numbers may surprise you: If you are born in the Elmira/Ithaca region to the top 1 percent of American earners, there’s an 11 percent chance your kids will end up in the bottom 20 percent.

Here’s the regional breakdown for children in our area born to parents who make $416,000 a year or more:

On average, those born to the top 1 percent in our area will end up in the 67th percentile, according to The Times’ analysis of the data.

6 — What about kids who are born into abject poverty?

So it turns out children in the Ithaca/Elmira area born to the bottom 20 percent have a 10 percent chance of making it to the top.

But what about those born into abject poverty — not the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution, but the bottom 5 percent?

Here’s what those numbers look like, according to figures provided by The Times:

7 — Further reading

Some suggested reading on the topic (and related topics):

»» Rochester, Ithaca mayors hit income inequality

Joseph Spector | Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, January 2015

»» Ithaca’s growing inequality problem, and how it relates to development

Brian Crandall | Ithaca Voice, January 2015

»» How Ithaca might tackle income inequality through development

Brian Crandall | Ithaca Voice, January 2015

»» Upward Mobility Has Not Declined, Study Says

David Leonhardt | New York Times, January 2014

»» While Americans focus on the 2016 presidential race, the people who directly impact their lives will quietly be elected

Danielle Kurtzleben | Vox, February 2015

»» In Climbing Income Ladder, Location Matters

Graphics | New York Times, January 2014

»» The Vicious Circle of Income Inequality


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.