Where someone grows up has a lot to do with where that person ends up, according to newly released research that followed young people from birth to their mid- to late 30s.
Consider two children living in poverty as little as a mile apart.
One of them is growing up in a low-income neighborhood, the other in a better-off area.
Although they both start at the same level of poverty, the child who comes of age in the less-poor community will make more money in life than the child who spends her life in the low-income area.
And, there's this: A child from a poor area who moves to a better-off area early in life will increase his lifetime earnings by around $200,000, and will be less likely to be incarcerated or become a teen parent.
What's at work here?
Data released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau and Opportunity Insights, a research and policy institute at Harvard University, look at how your neighborhood determines whether you can climb the ladder of social mobility to achieve the American dream.
Called the Opportunity Atlas, the research includes a mapping interface that allows users to click on 70,000 U.S. census tracts and understand which ones offer children the best chances of succeeding in life.
It appears that social mobility varies widely by neighborhoods even when families start out with similar incomes.
It's a big change from the long-held notion of the American dream.
People born in the 1940s or '50s were virtually guaranteed to earn more than their parents did, as the dream dictates, according to Raj Chetty, the Harvard economist who worked with a team of researchers on the tool.
He told NPR: "You see that for kids turning 30 today, only 50 percent of them go on to earn more than their parents did. It's a coin flip as to whether you are now going to achieve the American dream."
The research followed 20 million people from their births between 1978 and 1983 to their mid- to late 30s, an age at which they're established and making money.
Policymakers can use the atlas to better target programs that aim to improve economic opportunities for disadvantaged children. An example: City officials might best figure out where to place preschool programs to give kids a leg up in life.
A look at Philadelphia yields interesting results.
For instance, a person born into a low-income family on Hawthorne and Bridge Streets in Frankford who is now in her mid- to late 30s is making an average annual income of $25,000, according to the atlas.
A person of that same age who was born into a low-income family on Hawthorne and Levick Streets in Mayfair (about a mile away) is making $43,000.
Neighborhoods themselves have the power to ameliorate a life, the data show.
"Neighborhoods are geographic units with institutions and social norms that have influences on individuals growing up there," said Philip Jefferson, a Swarthmore College economics professor who's an expert on inequality. His new book, Poverty: A Very Short Introduction, was released this week.
Among the institutions in a better-off neighborhood are well-functioning schools, places of worship, health facilities, community centers, and libraries.
In addition, successful neighborhoods possess social capital, said Temple University sociologist and poverty expert Judith Levine. That is the network of relationships among people that include mentoring teachers, summer camps, and programs that teach young people how to apply to college or get a job, Levine said.
"For all sorts of reasons," she added, "geography matters."
Still, in its report this week on the atlas, the New York Times said that "researchers … don't understand exactly what leads some neighborhoods to nurture children, although they point to characteristics like more employed adults and two-parent families that are common among such places."
Of course, not everyone in a low-income area can move to a better-off one.
But, theoretically at least, policymakers can use information from neighborhoods where mobility rates are high to improve life in places where mobility is low or nonexistent, Levine said.
It won't be easy. "It's not like it hasn't dawned on people that it would be good for Philadelphia to have good schools," Levine said. "Building opportunities and resources wherever people are takes a lot of creativity.