Salt Lake ranked high for upward mobility — but is that story still true?

Published: Thursday, May 8 2014 9:50 a.m. MDT

A UTA Trax train travels on Main Street in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, March 14, 2012. Harvard and University of California Berkeley researchers put Salt Lake City on the short list of best places for upward mobility. But a new analysis asks if that's really still true.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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Harvard and University of California Berkeley researchers put Salt Lake City on the short list of best places for upward mobility last summer. But an analysis in The Atlantic asks whether that's really still true, or if some factors that put it on the list have changed since the research was conducted.

"Salt Lake City, with roughly 180,000 residents, shared the admirable distinction with major coastal cities such as San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston," writes Nancy Cook, a correspondent for National Journal. "The list generated significant buzz in academic, economic, and urban-planning circles both for its broad scope and for its finding that where people live can profoundly affect their children's economic futures. The U.S. is no longer uniformly the land of opportunity, the study showed, unless you happened to live in the right place."

The initial research found five factors that give kids the best chance to move up the economic ladder, including the economic landscape of a community, a stable middle class, good schools and strong social networks and family structures. When that research was released in August 2013, the Deseret News noted that "research says it's much harder for people in some geographic areas to climb the income ladder from poverty into the middle class than it is in others. A child in Atlanta, for instance, may not be able to escape poverty as easily as someone living in Salt Lake City or New York City."

Salt Lake had the best numbers, with an 11.5 percent chance of climbing from the bottom fifth up to the top fifth in terms of income. In Atlanta, which was last, there was a 4 percent chance, according to the Equality of Opportunity Project, which included a map of the locations as the researchers saw it.

"Salt Lake City still possesses two of the major strengths that made it one of the best cities in the country for upward mobility: a strong middle class and a less extreme gap between the rich and the poor. But what worries Salt Lake City academics and advocates now is that the city has fallen behind on other factors as it has become more global and diverse," The Atlantic article says.

"We're beginning to see the start of intergenerational poverty here, whereas we have not seen that in the past," Pamela Perlich, a senior research economist with the local Bureau of Economic and Business Research, told Cook. "And that raises questions about whether Salt Lake City, like other rapidly changing urban areas, can continue to provide the best opportunities for its low-income kids."

Cook notes more cultural and religious diversity in Salt Lake City than when the analysis was originally done. It points out low per-student funding for schools as a factor that may hamper mobility, as well as a growing income gap between the richest and poorest.

"Still, Salt Lake City's nonprofit leaders, educators and academics feel optimistic," Cook writes.

The quest for upward mobility is ongoing and researchers have not lost their fascination with the topic. Washington University professor Mark Rank, lead author of “Chasing the American Dream,” said that dream is more elusive than it used to be. He told St. Louis Public Radio that it is especially hard for young people to make progress. Millennials, particularly, have struggled in the wake of the recent recession, and their recovery has been far less complete than other segments of the population.

In that discussion, Bill Emmons of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis' Center for Household Financial Stability agreed. “Some people say it is always tough for young people; that’s true. But this time it is a little bit different. It’s a little bit harder. The housing market was so volatile and it drew in many, many young people. And they were the ones most exposed and got hit the hardest.”

The Pew Charitable Trusts has built a multifaceted project around it called the Economic Mobility Project. "For more than two centuries, economic opportunity and upward mobility have formed the foundation of the American Dream, and they remain at the core of our nation's identity. As policy makers seek to foster equality of opportunity, it’s critical that their decisions be informed by a robust and nonpartisan fact base on economic mobility," the project explains.

Among the factors Pew cites as helping or hurting mobility are "education, neighborhoods, savings, and family structure." The center also looks at differences based on income, race and gender.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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