News Brief

The Poor Stay Poor in Sprawling Cities

Cities with high urban sprawl offer less economic mobility, say Harvard and Berkeley economists in a new study.

Upward Mobility by Geographic Location

Depending on location, a rags-to-riches tale for an American may be as likely as in the socially mobile Sweden, or more unlikely than in any other developed country. Researchers say urban sprawl is a common denominator where social mobility rates are the lowest, mostly in the Southeast and industrial Midwest.

The Equality of Opportunity Project
Children from low-income homes have a harder time climbing the economic ladder in cities with high levels of urban sprawl, say economists from Harvard University and the University of California–Berkeley. A new study for the Equality of Opportunity Project shows the American dream is less attainable for the poor when job opportunities are far away and social classes are segregated from each other—obstacles some American cities address better than others.

A child in the bottom fifth of income earners in sprawling Atlanta or Charlotte had a 4% chance of climbing to the top fifth of earners, while a poor child in denser Salt Lake City or San Francisco had an 11% chance.

The findings suggest physical characteristics of different regions account for the variations. High mobility rates were found where there was a strong, dispersed middle class and where poor families lived in mixed-income neighborhoods. Suburbanization can impede that composition by increasing class segregation and isolating the poor in concentrated pockets. Income mobility was also higher in areas with more civic engagement—a commitment that political scientist Robert Putnam famously noted in his book Bowling Alone is one of the first things people give up when they have long commute times.

Two-parent households and better schools were also correlated with higher upward mobility rates, but two factors that would seem like obvious contributors—race and higher average incomes—did not entirely explain the variations.

With urban sprawl playing such a key role, equality of opportunity could be bolstered by developing more concentrated, mixed-income city centers and reducing car dependence (see “Study Predicts 40% Less Driving in LEED Neighborhoods”).

Published September 3, 2013

Pearson, C. (2013, September 3). The Poor Stay Poor in Sprawling Cities. Retrieved from

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