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Moving On Up to the Northeast Side: Where Can You Climb the Income Ladder?

It’s time to ask yourself if your career’s in the right place—not figuratively, but physically.

If you aim to climb the income ladder in the United States, your best bet might be to move north and east—and definitely stay out of the south.

A new study from the Pew Charitable Trusts Economic Mobility Project—check out the group's nice interactive map—compares the ability of people to increase their average earnings over time in all 50 states and regions across the country.

With increasing concern over income inequality, the ability of Americans to work their way to top is an important question. Figuring out who is able to raising their standard of living and who isn’t is the first step toward figuring out how to give everyone a fair shot at prosperity.

The Pew researchers say this is the first time anyone has attempted a study of this depth, following Americans from age 35 to 39 for 10 years—the prime of their working lives, more or less—assessing how their income levels changed and adjusting the results for inflation. Then they combined three different measurements, including absolute change in income—whether people moved up or down the ladder relative to their peers—for a comprehensive ranking.

The Pew folks found a few states in the northeast far outperforming the rest of the country in mobility—New York, New Jersey, and Maryland were the clearest winners, with Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania not far behind. In New York, average income grew 20 percent over a decade, three points above the national average of about 17 percent.

Oklahoma, Lousiana, and South Carolina had the worst mobility, followed by a group including Alabama, Florida, and Kentucky. Oklahoma saw the average income of its residents rise only 14 percent.

The researchers didn’t attempt to explain the secret sauce that set apart the states and regions where residents found more economic mobility, but that’s the next step for others interested in the question. The results do suggest that some combination of public policy, local industry, and geography play a part in making physical location matter to one's ability to scramble up the greasy pole.

"The fact that different state residents experienced different rates of mobility means where you live matters," Erin Currier, the director of Pew’s economic mobility project, told NPR.

One important result of that finding: People who moved to another state were more likely to see a large bump in income. This fits with a larger body of research that shows that people who are more geographically mobile are also more economically mobile—which make sense, since place matters.

You can read more about why moving matters in GOOD 027, our migration issue, on newsstands May 27 and on the web in early June.

In meantime, maybe it’s time to ask yourself if your career’s in the right place—not figuratively, but physically.

Chart courtesy of the Pew Economic Mobility Project

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