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Ability of Americans to climb the economic ladder varies by state, according to a new study

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 9, 2012 - A new survey measuring the economic mobility of Americans at the state level suggests that climbing up the ladder is more likely in certain pockets of the country than in others.

According to a new report by researchers from Pew’s Economic Mobility Project:

  • Residents of eight states, primarily in New England, have consistently higher upward mobility and lower downward mobility compared to the rest of the nation.
  • For residents of the South, the news is dimmer: Nine Southern states have consistently lower upward mobility and higher downward mobility.
  • Both Missouri and Illinois fall into the average range: no worse and no better than most of the nation.

The study, which includes an interactive online map, focuses on a 10-year span of Americans born between 1943 and 1958 who are now in their prime working years. The researchers compared earnings of these folks when they were ages 35-39 to their earnings at ages 45-49.

The study analyzed “absolute” mobility, defined as the average earnings growth over time for residents of a state. It also looked at “relative” upward and downward mobility to compare how residents of a state rank on the earnings ladder, relative to their peers.

Erin Currier, manager of the mobility project, suggested the concept of an escalator to explain how Americans can experience upward absolute mobility without experiencing upward relative mobility.

“If everyone is moving up, everyone experiences upward absolute mobility,” said Currier, during a webinar Wednesday morning with media. “But if people don’t change positions on the escalator as it’s moving up, those who begin at the bottom will remain at the bottom even as they grow richer.”

The researchers found that Maryland, New Jersey and New York ranked the highest in economic mobility, bettering the national average on all three measures. Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Utah bettered the national average on two measures.

Louisiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina indicated worse economic mobility than the national average in all three categories. Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas were behind the national average in two categories.

The study found that while geographic mobility matters on an individual level, it did not affect the overall state mobility results.

The most recent data was collected in 2007 -- before the Great Recession -- so the researchers don’t yet know what effect the economic downturn might have in the future.

“Past research studying trends in mobility suggest that there haven’t been recessionary effects in the past 40 to 50 years,” said Diana Elliott, research manager for the project. “This is not to say that individuals don’t experience income increases and drops over the short term, but the long-term economic mobility of an entire state is likely to be relatively stable through recessionary periods.”

Pew started the Economic Mobility Project in 2006 to study the American Dream and the factors that drive economic mobility over generations. Pew’s past studies have found that mobility is driven by various factors, including education, asset building and neighborhood poverty during childhood.

“We know from our polling that Americans believe in the American Dream and that equal opportunity should exist for all,” said Elliott. “So we feel that it is interesting that there are differences at the state level that show that there might not be equal opportunity.”

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.