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OUR OPINION: 'Lands of opportunity'

Some years ago, a woman we know was talking about the way people complimented her on her successful and well-behaved children.

“I always say, ‘Well, I’ll take some credit, but Grand Forks had a lot to do with it,’” she said.

“It would have been harder if we had lived somewhere else.”

There’s a pretty good chance she was right.

When it comes to achieving the "American Dream” of improving their lot in life, young people from the upper Midwest and the Great Plains succeed at some of America's highest rates, research out of Harvard and other institutions has shown.

Using a data “snapshot” of people born in the years 1980 to 1982, the researchers measured “the average economic outcome of a child from a below-median income family,” as the study puts it. They call that measurement “absolute income mobility.”

The researchers then broke the United States into 740 subregions. They calculated the absolute income mobility in each.

And on the list that results, the top six regions with the best results all are in North Dakota. Dozens more that follow are in the Plains or Rocky Mountain states, notably Utah.

About 140 subregions later, communities in America's coastal states start showing up.

“The United States is often hailed as the land of opportunity, a society in which a child’s chances of success depend little on her family background,” the researchers state.

But in fact, the country might better be described “as a collection of societies, some of which are ‘lands of opportunity’ with high rates of mobility across generations, and others in which few children escape poverty.”

So: What makes the Heartland states stand out?

“Yes, that’s a great question,” said Harvard economist Raj Chetty, one of the researchers, in an interview on PBS.

“We don’t know exactly what the key causal factors are, but some of the channels that appear to potentially be important are the levels of inequality within the area, so how much difference is there between the higher incomes and lower incomes within a given city. …

“Also, what appeared to be fairly important is the amount of segregation in the area. So a city like Atlanta, for example, lower-income individuals are not living in neighborhoods that are well-integrated with higher-income families. And that, we found, was a common characteristic of the cities that had lower rates of upward mobility.

“We also found correlations with — perhaps not surprisingly — the quality of local schools and also various factors that are related to family structure, so the fraction of two-parent families in an area and measures of civic engagement and religiosity; the cohesiveness of the community, if you would like.”

So: Smaller-than-average gaps between rich and poor ... communities without much "blight" -- that is, without run-down, low-income neighborhoods falling into urban decay ... solid graduation rates and other indicators of good schools ... a high percentage of two-parent homes ... residents who tend to be active in church organizations and other civic groups.

That's what people are looking for when they choose the Grand Cities and other communities across the north country. And to the great good fortune of their children, apparently, that's pretty much what they find.