Children in Milwaukee Area Face Roadblocks to Upward Mobility

Wednesday, July 31, 2013 at 12:07 PM by

Poor children in the Milwaukee/Waukesha area are less than half as likely to climb to the top of the income ladder as poor children in other areas of Wisconsin, according to a new study of income mobility highlighted this week in the New York Times

The new study, led by economists at Harvard and the University of California-Berkeley, shines a light on the degree to which opportunities for upward mobility differ starkly by geography. Upward mobility, measured by the likelihood that a child raised in the bottom fifth of income level rose to the top fifth, is lowest in the southeastern states like Georgia and South Carolina, and highest in western and Great Plains states like Utah and North Dakota.  

Wisconsin is roughly in the middle of the states in terms of upward mobility.  But there is a great deal of variation within Wisconsin for opportunities for upward mobility. In the Milwaukee/Waukesha region, 5.6% of the children in the poorest fifth rose to the top fifth, whereas in Monroe, 16.0% did so. That means a child raised in Monroe had nearly three times the chance of moving up the income ladder as a child raised in the Milwaukee/Waukesha area. 

One interesting aspect of the study is that it showed that children who move to a high-mobility area from a low-mobility area have almost as much chance to climb the income ladder as children who spend their entire childhoods in high-mobility areas. In other words, a child who moves from the Milwaukee/Waukesha region to the Monroe area would have improved chances at mobility. As one of the study authors put it, “Where you grow up matters.” 

What makes some areas of Wisconsin more conducive to upward income mobility? The researchers identified several major factors that appeared to affect opportunities for a child to rise to a higher income level, including:

  • Poor families living interspersed with middle class families, rather than concentrated in an area with other poor families;
  • High-quality schools;
  • More two-parent households; and
  • High levels of social engagement, such as membership in religious or community groups.

Overall, upward mobility in the U.S. is low compared to opportunities in other developed countries. Only the areas with the highest mobility rates have rates as high as Denmark and Sweden, two countries that top the international mobility rankings. 

Tamarine Cornelius

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