Baltimore Ranked as The County With the Least Upward Mobility

May 6th 2015

A new study from the Equality of Opportunity Project revealed that of the 100 largest counties in the United States, the county ranked last in upward mobility is Baltimore City in Maryland. 

The Equality of Opportunity Project studied anonymous tax records for more than five million children between 1996 and 2012. Researchers found that of children who grew up in households in the bottom 25th percentile of income, children in Baltimore had the lowest chance of escaping poverty as adults. As adults, these individuals experienced a loss of around 17.2 percent of earnings as compared to the national average.

According to the study's authors, "Every extra year a child spends in a better environment – as measured by the outcomes of children already living in that area – improves her outcomes, a pattern we term a childhood exposure effect. We find equal and opposite exposure effects for children whose families moved to worse areas. Further, we find analogous exposure effects for a broad range of other outcomes, including college attendance and the probability of having a teenage birth." 

The study found that predominantly African American areas were associated with lower upward mobility. Its authors outlined attributes shared by areas with higher rates of upward mobility: "Within a given commuting zone, we find that counties that have higher rates of upward mobility tend to have five characteristics: they have less segregation by income and race, lower levels of income inequality, better schools, lower rates of violent crime, and a larger share of two-parent households," Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren wrote in the Executive Summary for one of the reports, “The Impacts of Neighborhoods on Intergenerational Mobility.”

To offset the high cost of housing in many urban neighborhood with high upward mobility, the study's authors recommend providing housing vouchers to enable low-income families, as well as continued efforts to decrease segregation and raise the quality of public schools. 

Baltimore in the national spotlight. 

Last week, ATTN: outlined a number of grave statistics about poverty in Baltimore, statistics that had received little national attention before the protests that erupted in response to Freddie Gray’s death. Over the past week, Baltimore has been inundated with public attention, much of which took the form of voyeuristic coverage of the protests that sporadically became violent. John Oliver said sarcastically of the Baltimore protests on "Last Week Tonight": 

"It has been a delicate situation, handled by the media with the deft, not-at-all racist touch that they've become known for." 

Oliver contrasted the bail set for the six police officers charged for their involvement in Freddie Gray’s death, each of whom paid $250,000 to $350,000, with the $500,000 bail set for an 18-year-old protestor charged with misdemeanors. 

Evaluating the root of the problem. 

On April 30th, the day before the announcement of the indictment of the police officers, The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke at Johns Hopkins University’s Forum on Race in America about systematic racism and about growing up in Baltimore amidst violence and poverty. 

In the compelling and comprehensive piece "The Case for Reparations," published in The Atlantic last year, Coates writes powerfully about the hundreds of years of oppression and enslavement black Americans have endured at the hands of white Americans. This piece, Coates said at Johns Hopkins’ Race Forum, is "about housing, and how wealth is built in this country, and why certain people have wealth and certain other people do not have wealth and the manifold implications of that and the roots of that, through slavery, through Jim Crowe, indeed, through federal, state, and local policy." 

“The Case for Reparations” tells a national narrative rather than one that focuses specifically on Baltimore, and this piece, as well as the ideas expressed by Coates at the forum, may help to elucidate the lack of upward mobility in predominantly African American neighborhoods.   

At the forum, Coates said in response to anyone surprised or upset by the violence of the protests in Baltimore, “Violence was tolerated for all of my life here in West Baltimore." He described the extreme care with which he made every decision as a child: what to wear, where to walk, what time to leave school. 

"Every single one of those choices was about the avoidance of violence, it was about the protection of my body," said Coates. 

He added later, "I don't want to come off as if I'm sympathizing, or saying it's necessarily okay, to inflict violence out of anger, no matter how legitimate that anger is. But I have a problem when you begin the clock with violence on Tuesday, because the fact of the matter is the lives of black people in this city, the lives of black people in this country, have been violent for a long time."  

Coates cautioned the audience, and Americans at large, against expecting overnight change, and emphasized the importance of people acknowledging and accepting the privileges they possess (white privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, American privilege). "Stop squirming," Coates said at one point. "There's nothing to squirm about." 

Later Coates said, "The real battle is to get folks in this country, to get a critical mass of people in this country, and some of them black, by the way, to stop viewing black people as somehow naturally, or even culturally, predisposed to crime."  

As Ashley Nicole Black previously wrote for ATTN:, a knee-jerk reaction that criticizes the violence of protestors without considering the violence that has been perpetrated repeatedly against black Americans at the hands of (often) white police officers is a narrow-minded and selective reaction. Yet as Coates, President Obama, and others have pointed out, to blame police officers for the systematic racism and inequality deeply ingrained in our society is similarly narrow-minded and selective. The poverty and lack of upward mobility in Baltimore, as revealed by the Equality of Opportunity Project, has roots that extend much deeper than many Americans are comfortable acknowledging. 

Baltimore hardly needs more negative publicity. But perhaps the words of intellectuals like Coates can help us to think analytically about why Baltimore may be ranked last in upward mobility, and to address the roots of this poverty and inequality rather than simply react to its manifestations.

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