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Originally published Tuesday, July 30, 2013 at 5:24 PM

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Room to improve on upward mobility in Seattle

Upward mobility for poor kids in Seattle was greater than many other American places, but it was nothing special, writes columnist Bruce Ramsey.

Times editorial columnist

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Regarding the “Equality of Opportunity Project,” Paul Krugman of The New York Times hit a predictable note of grumpy progressivism. America, he proclaimed, “preaches equality of opportunity while offering less and less opportunity to those who need it most.”

I think there is a lot of opportunity here.

The study was by economics students at Harvard University. They compared the income of American 30-year-olds with their parents’ when the 30-year-olds had been teenagers.

The researchers were looking for income mobility. They wanted to know what share of the kids from the lowest one-fifth of households had climbed into the second fifth, the middle fifth, the fourth fifth or the top fifth in income.

For those who had grown up in the lowest fifth of households in the Greater Seattle area, 10 percent had made it into the top fifth, 16 percent into the second fifth, 19 percent into the middle fifth, 22 percent into the fourth and 33 percent in the bottom fifth.

That’s a lot of mobility. And by 30, an age Harvard students probably consider advanced.

Mobility up requires mobility down. Of the Seattle kids from the highest-fifth families, 32 percent had made it into the highest fifth by age 30. But 14 percent were in the lowest fifth. (One thing about the lowest fifth is that there will always be 20 percent of the people in it.)

Seattle’s mobility, up and down, was greater than many other American places, but it was nothing special. The chance that children of Colville, Wash., or Condon, Ore., would be in the top national income quintile by age 30 was about the same, though more of them probably had to move away to do it.

The study pointed to the South as America’s least-promising child-raising region. Krugman took alarm that only 4 percent of kids who grew up in the bottom fifth in Atlanta made it to the top fifth by age 30.

Still, the average 30-year-old from a poor family moved upward substantially, and the average ones from affluent families moved downward. Everywhere in America there is reversion to the mean.

All of which suggests to me that our trajectories are not set by the cannons from which we are fired. Influenced, sure. We want them to be influenced. What parent wants to live in a world so egalitarian that our parental efforts don’t count?

Parenting counts. The neighborhood we choose counts. The school we choose counts. Still, our childrens’ decisions count more.

I think of the kids I went to school with. One of my buddies became an airline pilot and is long retired, and one became a landscape gardener who is still working. One started a jewelry business and spent his revenues on cocaine. One died of a heroin overdose.

All different.

The big reasons for the difference in income and wealth were the decisions they made: what sort of work they did, how they spent their money and generally how they lived.

The other decision with momentous effect on their finances was who they married. This was expected for the women, but it was also true for the men.

As for “equality of opportunity,” the straw man Krugman knocks down with his liberal stick, nobody expected it in a literal sense. Really what was expected was substantial opportunity that would not be denied for an unfair reason.

Do we have it? A considerable amount, and always room for more.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

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