Concerning Upward Mobility, Geography Is Destiny - Pacific Standard

Concerning Upward Mobility, Geography Is Destiny

In your quest to find cheaper housing could you handicap your children's economic future?
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Arlington, Virginia. (Photo: Andrei Medvedev/Shutterstock)

Arlington, Virginia. (Photo: Andrei Medvedev/Shutterstock)

For human geography graduate students at the University of Colorado, statistics was required coursework. I preferred theory and would rather debate philosophy than mind quantitative analysis. I put off stats as long as I could. Running out of semesters before I had to defend my thesis, I missed the window to take the class in the geography department and ended up attending "data analysis" with psychology graduate students. Two professors team taught and took a conceptual approach. I was hooked. We replicated a lot of studies, including predicting how applicants to the university would perform. The best predictor of college success was the level of educational attainment for the parents. Since gleaning that understanding, I haven't worried all that much about where my children went to school. Both my wife and I have college degrees. What could go wrong? Everything.

Parents with the highest levels of education choose neighborhoods with great schools. Hence, the applicants predicted to do well likely grew up in wealthy neighborhoods.

Upon considering moving from Colorado to Northern Virginia (everyone in the Washington, D.C., metro area let me know I was moving in the wrong direction), I figured neighborhoods attached to good schools would be overpriced. The children of the parents doing all the financial and logistical gymnastics to get into the right high school district would do just fine in the ESL challenged elementary schools. Or so I thought. "The effect of neighborhood income is 50 to 66 percent of the parental income effect, so that growing up in a poor neighborhood would wipe out much of the advantage of growing up in a wealthy household."

Egads! The effect measured is total lifetime earnings, not successfully completing an undergraduate degree. Growing up in a poor neighborhood would undermine the advantage of well to do (and likely well educated) parents. In my quest to find cheaper housing, I could handicap my children's economic future.

I can reconcile my graduate school experience with this new study touting geography as income destiny. Parents with the highest levels of education choose neighborhoods with great schools. Hence, the applicants predicted to do well likely grew up in wealthy neighborhoods. Score one for over-educated and underemployed moms.

The dangling exceptional case demands more research. What about those wealthy households in poor neighborhoods? Do I fit into that demographic? In terms of income, my household played that part in Colorado. But I moved away before my kids reached school age. I doubt it would have mattered. What matters, in my estimation, is the ability to choose neighborhoods. I am playing a game of geographic arbitrage. For my Colorado neighbors, most of them were trying to play the hand they were dealt.

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