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Harvard study shows Ottawa County most upwardly mobile, Washtenaw and Wayne counties least

Map showing the "Predicted Income Rank at Age 26 for Children with Parents at 25th Percentile."
Harvard University and NBER

How do we break the cycle of poverty? What can we, as a state and a nation, do to help poor children escape poverty and move up and out?

Jamie Fogel is a pre-doctoral fellow with Harvard’s department of economics and a researcher on the Quality of Opportunity project that takes a close look at the effect of poverty and geography.

Fogel and his research team ask first and foremost: To what extent is the U.S. a "land of opportunity?"

They wanted to chart levels of mobility in the country and see how it varies across the nation.

"If parents earned X, what do we expect their kids to earn? And in general, we focused on parents who were at about the 25th percentile of income distribution … and we looked at the outcomes for their children," Fogel says.

Ottawa County is the most upwardly mobile place in Michigan, according to the project.

Fogel says Ottawa ranks above average in racial segregation, does very well in terms of income equality, and has relatively good test scores.

The same can’t be said for Washtenaw and Wayne counties. Kids who grew up in Ottawa saw income gain by $4,000; Wayne County kids earned $2,600 less than their parents.

Fogel’s team also found that the longer you spend in a place, "the more you look like that place."

“If you moved to a high-mobility area when you’re younger, you’re going to be more likely to experience that mobility, whereas if you move to that high-mobility place at a later age, you’ll still get some of the effects of the mobility, but to a lesser extent."

"Places matter," Fogel says. He hopes his project can show policymakers that there is something we can do and that poverty is not intrinsic to individuals and their families.

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