ARCHIVES: This is legacy content from before Sustainable Cities Collective was relaunched as Smart Cities Dive in early 2017. Some information, such as publication dates or images, may not have migrated over. For the latest in smart city news, check out the new Smart Cities Dive site or sign up for our daily newsletter.

Revealed: Best and Worst US Cities for Income and Social Mobility – and Why

income inequality and mobility

The Equality of Opportunity Project at Harvard released a fascinating study on economic opportunity for children.  The study looks at where children grow up and what their anticipated income will be once they are older. 

Via the New York Times, interactive maps are offered that allow the user to select gender and income percentile to determine how income mobility will be affected by place.

Furthermore, the study also looks at the impact based on how early in life a child has taken residency in a particular location, demonstrating that in many locations the sooner a child lives there the greater opportunity they will have. 

Across the country, the researchers found five factors associated with strong upward mobility:

  1. less segregation by income and race;
  2. lower levels of income inequality;
  3. better schools;
  4. lower rates of violent crime; and
  5. a larger share of two-parent households.

On the Equality of Opportunity Project website the researchers also ranked commuting zones in addition to counties. 

Top 10 and Bottom 10 Among the 100 Largest Counties

Percentage Gains/Losses Relative to National Average


Earnings Gain

 Rank Earnings Loss 
1DuPage, IL+15.2%91Pima, AZ-12.2%
2Snohomish, WA+14.4%92Bronx, NY-12.4%
3Bergen, NJ+14.2%93Milwaukee, WI-12.4%
4Bucks, PA+13.2%94Wayne, MI-12.6%
5Contra Costa, CA+12.2%95Fresno, CA-13.0%
6Fairfax, VA+12.0%96Cook, IL-13.4%
7King, WA+11.4%97Orange, FL-13.4%
8Norfolk, MA+10.8%98Hillsborough, FL-13.4%
9Montgomery, MD+10.4%99Mecklenburg, NC-13.8%
10Middlesex, NJ+8.6%100Baltimore City, MD-17.2%



This figure plots the percentage gain from moving to a better area by the age at which the child moves. For example, children who move at age 9 have outcomes that are about 50% between the outcomes of children who grow up permanently in the origin and destination areas.


This figure shows the average earnings of three groups of children who families enrolled in the MTO Experiment before they turned 13: those who grew up in public housing projects (Control), those who received standard Section 8 housing vouchers, and those who received vouchers to move to low-poverty neighborhoods (experimental).

Many of the cities that ranked lowest are also some of the fastest growing cities and are often cited as places that are great for families. 

Six of the seven lowest ranking cities were from North or South Carolina. 

Cities such as Charlotte and Raleigh often cited as great places for families ranked 97th and 95th in income mobility for those in the 25th percentile. 

The top two cities rank as cities with some of the lowest concentrations of children: Seattle and Minneapolis.  

This raises two questions:

  1. are we totally missing the mark when we release rankings on where families should move to? and
  2. are we giving enough attention to income inequality for family households as we are for single households?

Both are topics we hope to discuss at greater length.