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Originally published July 25, 2013 at 4:48 PM | Page modified July 26, 2013 at 11:50 AM

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Scaling the income ladder: the geography of success

Where children live can mean as much to their likelihood of success as their families’ economic means. Columnist Lynne K. Varner explains why.

Times editorial columnist

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I grew up in a family of modest means. Sometimes we qualified for food stamps; other times we ate high on the hog, to borrow a turn of phrase from my Southern roots.

My climb up the socioeconomic ladder to a level beyond where my parents reached was due to many things, including hard work and education, but it was also due to our ZIP code.

I grew up in a suburb of Washington, D.C., surrounded by jobs and good schools. Had I grown up instead amid scant opportunities, my ascent into the middle class would have been more difficult or even impossible.

Where you grow up dictates, in large part, where you’ll end up.

A recent study about income mobility offers the most convincing evidence of the power of geography. Economists from Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley used millions of anonymous earnings records to build comparisons of economic mobility across major U.S. cities.

Young people growing up in Northeastern cities such as New York and Boston or in the West, for example, in Salt Lake City or Seattle, have the best chance of scaling the income ladder. The toughest uphill climb awaits children growing up in the Southeast, such as Atlanta or in industrial Midwestern cities, including Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Columbus.

A number of factors drive success, or lack thereof, including education and family conditions. Add to the list your home address. Intuitively that makes sense. Good things tend to cluster. Thriving cities and communities tend to have jobs, quality schools and good public-transportation systems and other amenities. Community success makes personal success easier to achieve.

It makes sense then that the home of Boeing, Microsoft and myriad other high-growth companies would rank high in the study for economic mobility. A New York Times article about the study cast it in stark terms: Poor children in Seattle do as well financially when they grow up as middle-class children from Atlanta.

But let’s not sprain something patting ourselves on the back. We have problems. Washington lags behind most other states in the percentage of students we send to college. The problem is particularly acute for low-income students. With two-thirds of future jobs requiring some level of college, scaling the economic ladder in Seattle is no easy climb.

Opportunities for young Seattleites depend on whether they’re growing up south or north of the Ship Canal. The quality of schools, jobs and other factors tell a story about Seattle that is different from the study’s 30,000-foot snapshot of metropolitan areas.

President Obama said this week that income inequality “isn’t just morally wrong; it’s bad economics.” The president is right. Poor children who grow up to be poor adults cannot buy goods. They are less likely to have the resources, including the luxury of time, to build the good schools and sustainable communities necessary for the success of future generations.

So how do we help children grow up to break through the economic barriers created by poverty, geography and other factors?

We can grow the kinds of jobs that offer their parents better economic opportunities. For one, that improves kids’ immediate living conditions. But it helps down the road because families pass down their affluence through helping pay for college and scoring jobs.

We can work harder to identify early students struggling academically. Problems tend to start in elementary school and build.

We can also nurture the kinds of industries that have inspired educated, talented people living elsewhere to move here. Those folks have come here and strengthened and expanded our economy. At the same time, we need to be preparing our kids for the same jobs that attracted others to come here.

That’s how economic mobility works.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is lvarner@seattletimes.com Follow her on Twitter @lkvarner

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