Pennsylvania, Land of Opportunity

Stephen Herzenberg |

We’re not always the “good news bears,” but today we’re thrilled to give greater visibility to a landmark new study that shows the American Dream of upward mobility is more alive in Pennsylvania than in most parts of the country.

Two Harvard and two Berkeley economists put together a boffo data set that includes more than 6 million children born in 1980 and 1981 and spread across more than 700 regions, or “commuting zones.” Using this huge sample, the researchers bring hard data to a fundamental question: what is the connection between the income of children’s families in their teen years (1996-2000) and children’s income at age 30? More particularly, do children raised in families in the bottom half of the income spectrum — or even in the bottom fifth — have a real shot at moving up?

In Pennsylvania, low-income children do have a shot — or at least a two or three times better shot than low-income children in Atlanta, Charlotte, and most of a five-state southern region that forms a boomerang from North Carolina to Mississippi. Only about 4% of children in the bottom fifth in these southern states make it to the top income fifth as adults. In some Pennsylvania regions — led by a region with 41,000 people centered in St. Marys in Elk County — the same share is over 12%.

Since the new Harvard-Berkeley study compares parents’ income in 1996-2000 to the kids’ own income as working adults in 2010-11, my first thought was that Pennsylvania’s robust performance is a “Keystone Research Center” effect. After all, the center launched in 1996.

I’m guessing former state Representative Dan Surra, who hails from St. Marys, will see it as a “Surra effect.” But really I’m kidding. (Besides, if the state had followed KRC’s, or Danny’s, policy prescriptions, we would have completely outdistanced the country on upward mobility.)

The Harvard-Berkeley study is getting tremendous play out of the box, with The New York Times highlighting the high levels of mobility in Pittsburgh. But when you look more closely, as we did, you’ll see that most of Pennsylvania ranks high.

To make it easy for Pennsylvania media, regional and state leaders, and the public to process this study, we pulled out the upward mobility facts on Pennsylvania’s 12 regions in a policy brief. This brief also has other links — to The New York Times maps, graphics, and article; to the researchers’ study itself; and to much of their data.

In addition to computing indicators of upward mobility for each of the 700+ U.S. regions, the researchers’ offered initial thoughts on what explains higher mobility, citing four broad factors: a strong and dispersed middle class, quality K-12 education for all, strong families (low divorce rates), and “civic engagement.” We think these factors make sense of Pennsylvania’s success, although as our brief elaborates, the particular dynamics appear different in our rural and metro areas.

This is, of course, good news for Pennsylvania, but these hard numbers are also a crushing indictment of the “Southern Strategy” in public policy. The findings show that low government spending, failure to invest in quality education for all children, right-to-work laws (which shrink the middle class and civic engagement), and voter suppression stunt economic opportunity.

This study also provides a warning. In the last few years, there has been something of a war in Pennsylvania on quality education for all, on the middle class (austerity anyone?), and even on civic engagement (“vote, shmote”).

So this study brings us back to an age-old question: what kind of Pennsylvania do you want? If you like the ring of “Pennsylvania, land of opportunity,” you’re going to have to fight for it. If you believe in a world where all children — no matter the circumstances of their birth — have a shot, you’re going to have to fight for those children.