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Upward mobility

Published August 7, 2013 1:01 am

Salt Lake the best of a bad lot
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The bad news is, people born poor in Salt Lake City have only an 11 percent chance of earning their way into the top fifth of income-earners

The worse news is, that's the good news.

Here in the United States of America, the Land of Opportunity, where all it takes to make it are your own grit, determination and hard work, the fact is that people from every income bracket find that their positions are what is called "sticky." That means that people who are born poor tend to stay poor, and people who are born rich tend to remain rich.

It has, of course, ever been thus. But a new national survey of income data builds on what was already known from a previous Utah-based study: When it comes to upward mobility, Salt Lake City is the best of a bad lot.

The data indicate that only a little more than one in 10 of the Salt Lakers born to a family making less than $25,000 a year will be making more than $100,000 annually by age 45. But the study of big cities notes that the fractional hope of such success found here is actually at the top of the heap.

Salt Lake came in first among the nation's 50 largest cities. We are slightly better than cities in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, and well ahead of such metropolises as Atlanta and Memphis, cities where upward mobility is statistically more Third World than Sun Belt.

Likely reasons for the differential are many. They include Salt Lake's systems of public and higher education, which are both seen as good and, in the case of post-high school, relatively affordable. Salt Lakers also are more likely to come from intact families, be comparatively healthy and have access to public services such as public transit.

That last stands out, as Salt Lake's own Utah Transit Authority is roundly criticized for its high costs and diminished bus service. But the study shows that a lack of accessible and affordable mass transit is a big part of what keeps economic mobility down in seemingly booming places such as Atlanta. Something to be kept in mind as UTA goes for an expected sales tax hike in the not-too-distant future.

Something else that cannot be forgotten is that even the seemingly marginal success of Salt Lake City as a platform for upward mobility is threatened by the national economic downturn, the increasing ethnic diversity of its population — which tends to clog the old boy network as a way up — and a state government that sees little need to step up to the kind of educational, health care and other support system challenges the community faces.

This is a case where we may have to run as fast as we can just to stay in place.




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