The United States is an immigrant nation and consists of places that differ widely in social, cultural, and economic makeup. Recent research finds striking regional variation in economic opportunity—the prospects of poor children to escape poverty as adults. Here, we show that the dominant European ancestry of a place does much to explain such differences: Levels of income equality and mobility across US communities with different European heritage mirror those across corresponding European countries. This finding sheds light on the historical roots of the American geography of opportunity.Abstract
A large literature documents how intergenerational mobility—the degree to which (dis)advantage is passed on from parents to children—varies across and within countries. Less is known about the origin or persistence of such differences. We show that US areas populated by descendants to European immigrants have similar levels of income equality and mobility as the countries their forebears came from: highest in areas dominated by descendants to Scandinavian and German immigrants, lower in places with French or Italian heritage, and lower still in areas with British roots. Similar variation in mobility is found for the black population and when analyzing causal place effects, suggesting that mobility differences arise at the community level and extend beyond descendants of European immigrant groups. Our findings indicate that the geography of US opportunity may have deeper historical roots than previously recognized.