Sorry, NYTimes, the South Is a Land of Opportunity

Perceived intergenerational mobility. Source: New York Times

Americans believe the United States is a land of opportunity, a country where people who work hard enough can get ahead. The faith in one’s ability to improve one’s economic circumstances is especially strong in the South. Ironically, contends Patricia Cohen with the New York Times, nowhere is the gap between perception and reality greater than in the South.

“For moving from the bottom of the income ladder to the top, the South offers the worst odds in the United States,” writes Cohen. “But it’s also the region where people are most optimistic about the prospects.”

(The gap between perception and reality is especially wide in Virginia, according to data presented in the article. Virginians estimated that 14.5% of Americans born into the bottom income quintile make it into the ranks of the top quintile as adults. The actual figure in Virginia is 6.3%.

The persistent belief in the U.S. as a land of opportunity has political implications, as Cohen observes. Liberals and progressive, who contend that the odds are stacked against ordinary Americans, argue that government intervention — from raising the minimum wage to providing free college for all — is needed to level the playing field. Conservatives, they suggest, over-estimate social mobility and under-estimate the need for palliative action. And evidence drummed up by Harvard researchers and presented in the NY Times article appears to back them up.

It will surprise no one to read that I believe the researchers who compiled the data framed their findings in such a way as to confirm pre-existing beliefs.

Actual intergenerational mobility

Look at how the researchers have defined intergenerational mobility: movement from the bottom quintile all the way to the top quintile. That’s not mobility — that’s hyper-mobility. Sure, Americans have always admired Horatio Alger stories but they’ve known that rags-to-riches stories are the province of a celebrated lucky few. The faith in America as a land of opportunity is based on more realistic expectations, the belief that parents can sacrifice to create opportunities for their children, and that the children who work hard will fare better than them. For most ethnic groups the upward climb typically took place over two, three or four generations — from the bottom quintile, say, to the fourth quintile for the second generation, the third quintile next generation, and so on.

In other words, researchers have measured a rarefied definition of intergenerational mobility that makes it appear as if upward mobility were more limited than, in fact, it is. What percentage of Americans manage to graduate from high school, earn a marketable skill in community college, and climb from the bottom income quintile to the middle quintile? The researchers don’t tell us. Until we compile that data, the argument remains unproven that America is a land of throttled opportunity.

As for the argument that opportunities are particularly constricted in the South,  the NY Times article never considers the implications of U.S. internal migration data. According to North American Moving Services data, Florida (“intergenerational mobility” of 6.2%), North Carolina (4.6%), South Carolina (4.0%) and Tennessee (5.2%) are among the top eight state experiencing the greatest domestic in-migration in 2018. If opportunities for upward mobility are so limited in the South, how come so many people are moving there? (Sadly, as Virginia adopts the political hue of its northern neighbors, the state has shifted from being a net importer of domestic households to a net exporter in recent years.)

No question, there are barriers to upward economic mobility — poor public schools, unaffordable higher education, unaffordable housing, and dysfunctional subcultures of poverty. These are real problems, and we need to deal with them. But millions of Americans manage to overcome the odds each generation. Perhaps we should spend more time examining how they do so rather than convincing ourselves that their climb out of poverty is an illusion.

(Hat tip: Thanks to Stephen Moret for pointing me to the article. He bears no responsibility for the conclusions I draw from it.)

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15 responses to “Sorry, NYTimes, the South Is a Land of Opportunity”

    1. djrippert Avatar

      Now break down Virginia by region and tell me what the data tells you. In 2012 the data would have told you that Richmond was the second most obese city in America …

  1. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    The NYT is infected with liberal bias and also disdains most of fly-over America, especially the southern part. I had no idea. When did that happen?

    Shhh – and don’t tell them, but some of those states with lots of new rich people have the oil and gas finds to thank for it. Yeah, otherwise North Dakota and West Virginia are economic beacons of growth, right?

  2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Guess NY Times reporters are clueless and out to lunch as to the legendary Northern Rust Belt that includes large swaths of upper New York State, failing and emptying out in despair since 1960s.

  3. As part of the answer to why Northeast states are losing population, economist A. Gary Shilling points out the new TCJA SALT deduction limits are probably chasing out some of their the biggest tax payers. Shilling lives in NJ.

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka


    How many times do I have to read this goofy provincialism? What ever Virginia Cavaliers think, you tend to be wrong. Some parts of the South ARE magnets because they are affordable in jobs and cost of living. Not so much the Mississippi Delta, northeastern North Carolina or Central Appalachia. Look at any record of poverty, cancer, bad school grades ANYTHING, these sections of the South are guilty. And Reed, if fracking is so wonderful why isn’t West Virginia turning itself around?. The fracking is in the NORTH. Coal is in the SOUTH. As usual, the wealth is going somewhere else. Any why do I have to put up with this perpetual Times baiting? At least the Times reports in between the coasts and overseas. They actually spend the money and expertise to do so. I hate to see BR overwhelmed by raw parochialism.

    1. So, when I defend the South, it’s parochial.

      But when the NY Times bashes the South, it’s… what? Cosmopolitan? Informed by broad-minded erudition?

    2. djrippert Avatar

      I would say you hit the nail on the head but you didn’t. You did strike a glancing blow however. The biggest mistake and the biggest source of bias in the New York Times article is the entire concept of “the South”. Once upon a time “the South” may have been something of a monolith. During the 30s, 40s and 50s for example. You know – back when Virginia was relevant … in an awful way. But the south has moved on and divided into The New South and The Old South. The New South has places like Austin, Charlotte and Nashville. The Old South has places like Richmond, Montgomery and Jackson. The New South is far more competitive than the rusting hulks of the north. The Old South is as hopeless as it ever was.

      A classic New South vs Old South issue was the matter of the Nashville Convention Center. In the middle of the so-called Great Recession of 2009 Nashville residents voted on whether to fund the construction of a new convention center in Nashville at a cost of $600m. Forward looking Nashville funded the center as part of the overall expansion plan for their city. No city in the Old South would have had the guts to do the same. In fact, commentators on blogs like this one would have come out in droves to cry about the unfairness and incompetence of such a measure. Six story statues of Robert E Lee? Absolutely! New convention centers? Never!

      How did it work out for Nashville?

      The center is operating at capacity and is booked through 2030.

      As for the Times covering The South – that was a long time ago. Back in the bad old days when segregation, rampant racism and other sins gave The Times a reason to cover the Old South. Nowadays the three most homicidal cities in the US are St Louis, Baltimore and Detroit. I wonder how much upward mobility there is in those cities? Seems more like downward mobility – six feet downward to be exact. I’ll hold my breath waiting for The Times to cover that story.

    1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
      Peter Galuszka

      Brother Bacon,
      The NYT IS the South. Explanation on request

  5. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Just to elaborate, the Times has always had a special relationship with the South. Some of its best writers and editors — Gene Roberts, Tom Wicker, Arthur Krock — are Southerners who worked there as journalists. The Sulzberger family spent years in Chattanooga. I ran into Arthur Sulzberger, the now retired publisher, when he was putting in some early years at the Raleigh Times and I was at the Pilot. We had been college classmates. The Times has always paid a special interest in things Southern and its reporting during civil rights was extensive and courageous. To dismiss the paper as having a “fly over” attitude is just plain wrong.

    1. …. None of which refutes Steve’s statement that the NYTimes is infected by liberal bias.

      Why do you try so hard to deny the obvious, Peter? Just acknowledge reality and make the argument that the liberal bias is morally justified.

    2. Let me guess, those Southern folks moved to Maryland? Judging by WaPo positions like moving FBI to MD over Va. etc.

      1. djrippert Avatar

        So many southerns moved to Baltimore that there was a neighborhood back in day called Billytown (aka Hillbilly town). Not sure where the Billys went once the jobs disappeared.

  6. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I will admit that its editorial pages lean left but to say that the entire paper is “liberal” is nuts. Do you know anyone personally on the staff? I do and they have many varied personal political views. Have you ever written for them? I have and, believe it or not, one business section story was about how China and India have a ravenous appetite for coal, regardless of global warming. Did they edit the story to make it “liberal” or “pro green?” Full disclosure. I always will appreciate that they did give my book a review. It was brief but very positive.

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