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Where Sprawl Makes It Tougher to Rise Up the Social Ranks

Dense metros tend to offer more economic opportunity than less compact cities do.
An aerial view of metro Atlanta.
An aerial view of metro Atlanta.thisisbossi / Flickr

For the land of opportunity, America ranks dismally low on upward mobility among the world’s developed countries. But what the groundbreaking work of Raj Chetty and others at the Equality of Opportunity Project has found in recent years is that even within the U.S., rates of upward mobility vary widely. People who live in relatively compact San Jose, for instance, have a much better chance of ascending into a higher social class over the course of their lives than people who live in, say, sprawling Atlanta.

Chetty and collaborators have found that a number of factors play a role in the upward mobility of a given metro area—residential segregation, income inequality, family stability, and school quality among them. But a brief glance at the geographical list, with San Jose and Atlanta at opposite ends, seemingly implicates urban sprawl as well. As Paul Krugman wrote, back in 2013, there’s a very logical connection between the ability to access a job and the chance to rise in the ranks: