Does Geography Determine Destiny?

Ross DeVol and Angie Cooper

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Upward mobility in the United States, often affectionately referred to as the “American Dream,” is at the center of some of today’s most important and timely debates. We are all invested in the idea of upward economic mobility, grounded in the notion that with hard work, we can build a
better life for ourselves, our communities and our children. Unfortunately, the analysis in this report makes it clear that the distribution of opportunity has been and continues to be uneven.

Gaps in opportunity have been an ongoing challenge for our country, but today there is a renewed spotlight on these discrepancies. With continued economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and a heightened focus on racial injustices due to recent instances of police brutality against Black Americans, we are now living in an especially challenging moment. Achieving an inclusive economic
recovery and more equal opportunity are more important than ever. The data at the foundation of this report predates these current crises, but the story it tells is as salient and urgent as ever.

Declining economic mobility for low-income households is a well-documented phenomenon with roots in overall rising inequality. But with this report, we take the conversation a step further, focusing on the Heartland region and exploring the factors behind economic opportunity. Our analysis is rooted in anonymized data from Opportunity Insights that follows 20 million Americans from childhood
to adulthood, allowing us to trace their outcomes and connect them back to the counties and neighborhoods where they grew up. Using this rich data set, we were able to map how geography impacts a person’s access to opportunity—how a family’s ZIP code can determine a child’s economic future. We were also able to closely examine how factors like race impact an individual’s mobility, finding that in almost every single neighborhood in the Heartland, Black men have lower earnings in adulthood than white men from the same earnings backgrounds.

Knowledge is power. While many of the findings in this report are sobering, we hope the analysis can also inspire action.

This report focuses specifically on the Heartland region because national research and policy discussions, including those around economic mobility, all too often overlook the center of the nation. Despite facing greater economic challenges than the rest of the country due to weaker economic growth, the region holds immense potential. In fact, a recent Heartland Forward report, “Millennials Find New Hope In The Heartland,”1 unveiled how many millennial workers increasingly recognize all the economic incentives the Heartland has to offer and are choosing to pursue their careers in the region rather than in major hubs along the coasts—countering the narrative of a mass migration from the middle of the country to major coastal cities. The COVID-19 pandemic and a rise in remote work may accelerate these patterns.

Heartland Forward remains committed to better understanding how to drive inclusive economic growth in the Heartland, including growth that generates a more equitable opportunity for low- income communities and communities of color. We believe strongly that every single person, regardless of their race, gender or hometown, deserves access to economic opportunity, labor force training and education and health care resources. We have a lot of work to do to get there. We look forward to continued collaboration with diverse community partners across the country to find actionable solutions that can bring about the changes we must make. Our country and the Heartland region must do better.

Ross C. DeVol, Heartland Forward President and CEO

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