One of the most commonly taught stories American schoolchildren learn is that of Ragged Dick, Horatio Alger’s 19th-century tale of a poor, ambitious teenaged boy in New York City who works hard and eventually secures himself a respectable, middle-class life. This “rags to riches” tale embodies one of America’s most sacred narratives: that no matter who you are, what your parents do, or where you grow up, with enough education and hard work, you too can rise the economic ladder.
A body of research has since emerged to challenge this national story, casting the United States not as a meritocracy but as a country where castes are reinforced by factors like the race of one’s childhood neighbors and how unequally income is distributed throughout society. One such study was published in 2014, by a team of economists led by Stanford’s Raj Chetty. After analyzing federal income tax records for millions of Americans, and studying, for the first time, the direct relationship between a child’s earnings and that of their parents, they determined that the chances of a child growing up at the bottom of the national income distribution to ever one day reach the top actually varies greatly by geography. For example, they found that a poor child raised in San Jose, or Salt Lake City, has a much greater chance of reaching the top than a poor child raised in Baltimore, or Charlotte. They couldn’t say exactly why, but they concluded that five correlated factors—segregation, family structure, income inequality, local school quality, and social capital—were likely to make a difference. Their conclusion: America is land of opportunity for some. For others, much less so.