The American Dream Is a Myth in Most Places, But Not Necessarily in Houston

On Tuesday, in his State of the Union address, President Obama told us: "What I believe unites the people of this nation is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all--the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead." It is an idea that we all know: it is what we call the American Dream.

Unfortunately, it's not true. The American Dream is largely a myth.

Economic mobility in the United States has not changed in a half-century. (No, I don't particularly care about some personal anecdote you have about someone pulling themselves up by their bootstraps; arguments from personal anecdote are a common logical fallacy). Indeed, as inequality has increased, so has the so-called "birth lottery." Choose your parents well is more true today than it's ever been. Indeed, the United States has less economic mobility than other countries (including a number of European countries).

But we already knew that (at least this should be a widely known fact). What is more interesting though is that economic mobility varies, sometimes quite significantly, depending on which area of the country you live. According to some recent research, there's something of a "geographic lottery" as well (see chart above).

In case you were wondering, Houston ranked 15th overall in intergenerational mobility within the fifty largest commuting zones.

A quick perusal of this list shows that the East and West Coast have more mobility, while the Midwest and the South have less. To put this in more concrete terms: the researchers found that the following factors played an important role: "High mobility areas have (1) less residential segregation, (2) less income inequality, (3) better primary schools, (4) greater social capital, and (5) greater family stability."

So, go west (or east), young man. Or stay right here in Houston.

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