Tampa Bay mediocre when it comes to upward mobility

Published July 22, 2013

The odds of raising poor kids to not be poor can vary widely depending on where those families live. A new study finds kids raised by parents in the lowest fifth of incomes are more likely to rise out of those poorest economic circumstances in rural areas of southwest Texas and along a zigzag line north through the Midwest. In parts of North Dakota, more than a third of children raised poor are likely to end up in the top fifth in income, much of that probably owing to the energy boom in that state.

Among big metro areas, their best shot at upward mobility comes in many major West Coast cities, as well as places like Pittsburgh, Boston and New York.

Among 30 large metro areas, alas, Tampa ranks a modest 22nd with just 7 percent of children raised in a household in the lowest fifth of income likely to end up in the top fifth. Of those kids at the bottom, 30 percent will remain in the lowest fifth for income, making $25,000 or less. An additional 31 percent will rise to the next fifth making between $26,000 and about $47,000, while 21 percent will land in the middle fifth of incomes between $48,000 and $72,000, and 12 percent will reach the next tier of $73,000 up to $106,000. And, as noted, just 7 percent will reach the top fifth of Tampa area incomes that ranged from $107,000 to $416,000.

Most of Florida reveals similar numbers. The good news is Florida generally offered better economic mobility than the bulk of the southeastern states, which stands out as the worst region in the country for those seeking to be upwardly mobile.

The study by Harvard and University of California-Berkeley economists found that, among major metro areas, Atlanta was most difficult for economic mobility, along with Detroit, Cleveland and Cincinnati.

Why do we care? Because Tampa Bay is trying to represent itself as a metro area on the rise and a believer in economic mobility, with low barriers of entry and an eagerness to raise the regional economic bar. But economic data that suggest it is harder here than many other places in the country to become upwardly mobile is a bad selling point to attract young people and families here, and an especially debilitating factor for low-income families trying to do better for their kids.

The study, just released, is based on millions of anonymous earnings records conducted by a team of top academic economists. As first reported by New York Times economic columnist David Leonhardt, the study is the first with enough data to compare upward mobility across metropolitan areas.

The study touches on a wide range of variables, from tax policy to the prevalence of two-parent families. The economists found upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods, where households with both parents were more likely, where better public schools were found, and where there was a higher participation in religious and community groups.

Follow trends affecting the local economy

Follow trends affecting the local economy

Subscribe to our free Business by the Bay newsletter

We’ll break down the latest business and consumer news and insights you need to know every Wednesday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

A big factor may lie in the sprawl of cities like Atlanta, where poor families are more concentrated in neighborhoods that offer few opportunities for better jobs and whose public transportation (despite Atlanta's metro system) does not cover much of the lower-income portions of the city.

The economists of this study say there's much more work to do to better understand the underlying reasons some parts of the country and different metro areas seem to offer such different opportunities for their residents to rise economically. Is it social class, which is more closed and harder to enter in some parts of the country than others? Is it weak public education systems — long the bane of Tampa Bay and Florida — and a still modest population of college graduates that are a drag on economic opportunity? Is it the Florida culture that so many folks are from somewhere else that metro areas like Tampa Bay lack the same community bonding that other parts of the country enjoy?

At the least, Tampa knows where it stands on a national scale of economic mobility. Mediocre, yes. But not the worst by any means.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at