News From Terre Haute, Indiana


March 15, 2014

POVERTY IN AMERICA: Success depends on birth location

TH near national mean for child born in poverty reaching top income level

TERRE HAUTE — Deb Kesler grew up poor in a single-parent family, but she knew that education was the ticket to a better life.

She and three siblings put themselves through college with grants, loans and work. Today, she’s the chief juvenile probation officer in Vigo County, a post she’s held for more than two decades.

“We knew we didn’t have to live in poverty, that education was how we were going to get out of that,” she said. “My life is comfortable. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been had I not gone to school.”

And as she works with young people whose families are low-income, she emphasizes the same message — education will mean a better life, and the resources and college aid to assist them are out there.

While some may believe upward mobility is a thing of the past in the United States, some recent Harvard University studies indicate otherwise.

The United States is still a land of opportunity, and the prospects of moving up the economic ladder are just as great, if not greater, than they were in 1971, according to those studies.

But it depends on where you live, and economic advancement is not equal in all places, said Bill Stanczykiewicz, president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute.

He based his comments, and has written a column, based on Harvard University’s Equality of Opportunity Project.

There is much variation across the United States, and even within the Hoosier state, in the extent to which children can rise out of poverty, he said.

Several Indiana communities rank poorly in fostering upward economic mobility for children, most notably regions including South Bend, Muncie, Richmond and Indianapolis, Stanczykiewicz said. Those regions rank in the bottom fourth in the country.

The Terre Haute area, which includes seven counties, is about at the national mean, or average, according to Alex Olssen, one of the research staff for the Equality of Opportunity study.

In Terre Haute, a child born into one of the poorest families (the bottom fifth income bracket) had about a 7.6 percent chance of moving into a top income bracket, defined as $70,000 or more by age 30 or $100,000 or more by age 45.

The Terre Haute area includes Vigo, Vermillion, Sullivan, Putnam, Parke, Montgomery and Clay counties.

Of 17 regions in Indiana, five that fare more favorably include the cities of Vincennes, Lafayette, Greensburg, Madison and Wabash.

In the Vincennes region, a child born in poverty has about an 11.6 percent chance of moving into the top income bracket, while in Lafayette, the odds are about 9.3 percent.  

In contrast, children born in poverty in the Indianapolis area have just a 4.8 percent prospect of moving into the top income bracket — it ranks fifth from the bottom among the nation’s 50 largest cities. San Jose is at the top of that list, with children born in poverty (the bottom income fifth bracket) having a 12.9 percent chance of reaching the top income bracket.

According to Stanczykiewicz, the study examined changes in income over time for 40 million children and their parents.

The study divides the U.S. into 741 regions and ranks them on the likelihood of a child moving from the bottom fifth of income into the top fifth.

The Harvard researchers concluded, “Contrary to the popular perception, measures of (economic) mobility have remained extremely stable. The rungs of the ladder have grown further apart, but children’s chances of climbing from lower to higher rungs have not changed.”

It does point to a growing income gap between wealthy Americans and the rest of the country.

Opportunities still exist

The study jumped out at IYI because people in the United States often hear, and believe, that the age of opportunity is over, Stanczykiewicz said. “The folks at Harvard say, actually, that’s not true at all,” he said.

But the second finding, that it depends on where you live and grow up, hits Indiana hard, he said.

IYI looked at the median, or midpoint, and found that of Indiana’s 17 regions, five are above and 12 are below.

Of the 17 regions in Indiana, only five — including cities such as Vincennes, Lafayette, Greensburg, Madison and Wabash — are above the national median, or middle point. (Mean is average, while median is midpoint).

In terms of Indianapolis’ lower ranking, people throughout Indiana tend to think the capital city “gets all the good stuff” and people move there to pursue better opportunities, he said.

But the research doesn’t look at where the jobs are and to where people are moving — it looks at the conditions where a person is born and what opportunities they have growing up.

The researchers identified several factors that correlate to economic mobility: segregation by income and race; community involvement; quality K-12 education and pursuit of post-secondary education; and family stability vs. the number of children growing up in a single-parent home.

Areas with mostly low-income families may lack access to public services and information about how to get ahead, Stanczykiewicz said. People don’t see success modeled, and young people may lack role models.

Those born into single-parent families are five to six times more likely to be in, and stay in, poverty, he said. “You’re not doomed. We’re just saying the odds are greater,” he said.

In areas where there is a lot of community involvement, “Kids tend to do better and enjoy better chances of economic mobility,” he said.

Quality K-12 education, as well as pursuit of post-secondary education, is another predictor of economic mobility. Postsecondary education can range from a four-year degree to a one-year credential.

Stanczykiewicz believes changes can be made to improve upward mobility, and it doesn’t require new legislation. “The great thing about this study is it points to family, community and school solutions that people can control in their own local communities,” he said. “It’s not easy. If it was easy, it would have been fixed by now.”

He suggests:

• Provide people in economically segregated communities with greater access to public services and information as well as mentors for young people.

• Continue to work to lower teen pregnancy rates. “The numbers are moving downward and we need to continue to move it downward,” he said.

• Encourage kids to do well in school, with family/ community support.

•  Continue emphasizing the importance of post-secondary education.

• Encourage family stability and two-parent homes. Children who are in single-parent households do face extra challenges, and perhaps some of those challenges could be addressed through mentoring, youth-serving agencies and partnerships with schools.

Olssen said the Equality of Opportunity Project has identified factors that tend to be predictive of upward mobility, but “we don’t know that they cause mobility to be higher.”

The studies so far don’t identify what can be done to improve a child’s opportunities to move up the income ladder, but that’s something on which researchers are currently working, Olssen said.

Also, while economic mobility in the U.S. has not changed significantly over time, it is consistently lower in the U.S. than in most developed countries, according to the Equality of Opportunity website.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or

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