The Midwest is home to restless changemakers, mindful leaders and soul innovators that fuel the American dream. The American dream has embodied stories of perseverance and purpose that shape our beautiful nation.
My parents have labored extensively as janitors to guarantee their children a better chance at life. It is not a glamorous job, but it pays the bills. My siblings and I have the duty of making this dream our reality. This is the reality for many hardworking families in our country. Parents and guardians sacrifice frequently in hopes of a better future for their kin. Through the inevitable ups and downs of life, we look to the future for inspiration. I believe that the Midwest has empowered people with a sense of belonging, economic opportunity and hope for the future.
During my first two years of college at UND, my family experienced insurmountable financial instability. I was confronted with the decisions of my family’s economic setbacks; to drop out or to persevere. My story was not significant. It is one of the millions. Financial setbacks can hinder the potential of future generations to succeed beyond the scope of higher education. I knew that I never wanted someone to feel the way I had felt: hopeless. I wanted to contribute through research and advocacy for economic opportunity.
I came across work by Opportunity Insights, which is an organization led by Dr. Raj Chetty, a Harvard Economist. Dr. Chetty’s work focuses on a different question – not income inequality per se that looks at how unequal incomes are at a point in time, but economic mobility across generations.
One way to think about economic mobility is to ask how well children born to poor families do later in life. In Dr. Chetty’s research, he considered children born between 1978 and 1983 whose parents were at the 25th percentile of the national income distribution. These children grew up in their state; e.g., North Dakota, spending significant time in their state of birth while under the age of 21. For these children from poor families in North Dakota, he found that they were, on average, able to reach well over the 50th percentile in terms of their income as adults. That placed North Dakota as the best state in terms of economic mobility.
North Dakota also ranks well when it comes to income inequality. Economists measure income inequality using a measure known as the Gini Coefficient. The Gini Coefficient essentially correlates with the statements about inequality such as, “The bottom 25% of income earnings only took home 10% of total national income ...”
North Dakota was ranked No. 31 out of all U.S. states in terms of income inequality using U.S. Census data in 2016. In fact, inequality in our state had been climbing from around 2010 to 2016 – we were the 13th fastest-growing state in terms of income inequality across that period – likely because of the oil boom, but, even as of 2016, we are still a state with comparably low-levels of income inequality.
Dr. Chih Ming Tan, UND economics professor, discusses the observations: “The data certainly shows that North Dakota is a wonderful place to grow up in. Even if you come from a poor background, your chances of upward mobility, and therefore, escaping poverty, are some of the highest in the country. One issue is that the result here really applies primarily to the white population of the state. Minorities – African Americans and Hispanic Americans (the data does not address the experiences of Native Americans) – in the state have upward mobility outcomes that are more in line with the national average and are therefore substantially less exceptional.”
North Dakota can be a prospect for further examination and analysis when policymakers and leaders brainstorm how to make cities more sustainable and equitable for all.
Michelle Nguyen will graduate from UND this month with majors in economics and political science with a minor in nonprofit administration. She has been an undergraduate economics researcher with the Ronald E. McNair program.