Back in the day, I ran an adult education and vocational training program in Chester, Pennsylvania. At the time, Chester had the highest unemployment and crime rate in the state of Pennsylvania. The program’s ultimate goal was to find decent jobs for our students. That would have been impossible if their job search were limited to Chester. The jobs were in Philly - around 30 minutes away by train. Unfortunately, many students were terrified at the prospect of going to Philadelphia; some had never been there their entire life. So field trips to Philadelphia became part of the curriculum.

One reason there’s a high level of intergenerational inequality in this country is because a lot of low-income families don’t move out of “low-opportunity” neighborhoods: neighborhoods that undermine a child’s life-time chances for upward mobility.

Moving at birth from a low- to high-opportunity area (and staying there throughout childhood) increases the average low-income child's lifetime household income by about 10%.

“High-opportunity” isn’t code for “affluent”. Plenty of low- and middle-income families live in high-opportunity neighborhoods. These are just neighborhoods with less concentrated poverty, less income inequality, better schools, a larger share of two-parent families, and lower crime rates.

Higher-and lower-opportunity neighborhoods are often near each other. Moving to opportunity need not entail leaving one’s job, family and friends behind.

Low-income families in the US tend to live in neighborhoods that offer limited opportunities for upward income mobility, less because they’re attached to where they live than because they’re intimidated by the prospect of living somewhere else.

Simple and relatively inexpensive interventions can counter the fear of moving to an unfamiliar neighborhood: emotional support, information on the benefits of living in high-opportunity neighborhoods, helping with required documents, identifying interested landlords, acting as a go-between with landlords, and helping with some auxiliary payments.

Over the longer term, low-opportunity neighborhoods need to be turned into high-opportunity neighborhoods. One way this happens is through gentrification, mainly by reducing crime - which has ripple effects.

Of course, gentrification causes hardship for some residents. Not the homeowners, whose property values go up as the newcomers move in, but the renters who may see their rents rise or homes sold. The solution isn’t to stop gentrification but to provide housing vouchers and other forms of assistance to its victims, either to help them stay in their changing neighborhood or move to another one.


Autor, D H, C J Palmer, and P A Pathak (2017), “Gentrification and the Amenity Value of Crime Reductions: Evidence from Rent Deregulation”, NBER Working Paper No. 23914.

Bergman, Peter et al Creating Moves to Opportunity: Experimental Evidence on Barriers to Neighborhood Choice  Opportunity Insights. August 2019

Chetty, Raj and Friedman, John and Hendren, Nathaniel and Jones, Maggie and Porter, Sonya, The Opportunity Atlas: Mapping the Childhood Roots of Social Mobility (October 2018). NBER Working Paper No. w25147. Available at SSRN:

Chetty , Raj and Hendren, Nathaniel “The Impacts of Neighborhoods on Intergenerational Mobility: Childhood Exposure Effects” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 133, Issue 3, August 2018, Pages 1107–1162,

Chetty , Raj, Hendren, NathanielRaj Kline, Patrick, and Saez, Emmanuel “Where is the land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 129, Issue 4, November 2014, Pages 1553–1623,

Housing and Economic Mobility Policy Debate/The Urban Institute. Moderator: Margery Turner