Research: Sprawl, Transportation Access, and Neighborhood Affect Upward Mobility

Research finds that sprawl, limited public transportation, and where children of the lowest-income families grow up affects their future earnings.


The Equality of Opportunity Project by researchers at Harvard and Stanford universities has found that urban sprawl can challenge upward mobility.

The researchers used statistical data from 1996 through 2012 to measure how upward mobility varies across the United States, and then analyzed how families who moved to different neighborhoods affected their children’s upward mobility.

“Areas with less sprawl (shorter commutes) have significantly higher rates of upward mobility,” researchers say in one of the project’s initial reports, Where is the Land of Opportunity?

The researchers divided the United States into 741 commuting zones and then looked at income growth data in the 100 largest commuting zones (typically named for the nearest metro region, but not exclusive to its city limits). This chart shows the percentage income gained or lost of the children of the lowest-income families when they become working adults. For example, a child growing up in the Seattle commuting zone would make nearly 12% more at age 26 than a child of the same economic bracket growing up in an average-size commuting zone, according to researchers.

The recent findings published in January, Childhood Environment and Gender Gaps in Adulthood, take a deep dive into the adulthood employment rates of children of the lowest-income families. According to the research, boys growing up in poor, single-parent families in areas of concentrated poverty are less likely to work than their female counterparts.

Learn more and download Equality of Opportunity Project reports and data.

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