Why you should care
Because the American Dream can vary a great deal depending on where you are doing the dreaming.
OZY is proud to partner with Opportunity Nation to reveal the results of their 2017 Opportunity Index, which measures the economic, educational and civic factors that foster opportunity and economic mobility.
In the United States, your chances of achieving the so-called American Dream can depend on a lot of things, including your race, gender, family background and educational attainment. It can also largely depend — as a growing volume of research suggests — on exactly where in the U.S. you live.
In fact, these studies show that there is one somewhat surprising region of the nation where your chance of getting ahead may be best: the seven Great Plains states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and North and South Dakota. That’s right, upstart Millennials — let your peers pack their bags for the costly shores of New York or California; you should pack yours for the friendly plains of Minnesota or North Dakota and go north, young (wo)man!
If you want upward mobility, then you should think about moving upward.
The latest data point for this trend is the recently released 2017 Opportunity Index, a joint creation by Opportunity Nation and Child Trends that has, since 2011, taken a composite measure of opportunity in the U.S. that covers four key dimensions: economy, education, health and community. As you might expect, a number of New England states performed well on the index, with Vermont securing the top spot. But five Great Plains states — Minnesota (2), Iowa (3), North Dakota (5), Nebraska (6) and Wisconsin (10) — round off the Top 10, with Kansas (14) and South Dakota (17) appearing in the top 20 and easily outperforming the national average.
The Opportunity Index scores reaffirm similar findings elsewhere. A 2014 study on intergenerational mobility in the U.S. published by the National Bureau of Economic Research also found that the most upwardly mobile region in the country was the Great Plains. And a 2017 study on U.S. economic opportunity from the Economic Innovation Group, a policy group in Washington, concluded that “[p]rosperous rural areas predominantly in the Upper Midwest and Northern Plains are the country’s most powerful engines of upward mobility.”
So why are these Great Plains states doing so well on the opportunity front? With respect to the Opportunity Index, good performances on the health dimension play a key role in states like Minnesota, Iowa and North Dakota, says Monique Rizer, executive director at Opportunity Nation. Entrepreneurship opportunities are also key. Young adults who identify a problem in their community and who are able to start a business to fix it are critical because, in doing so, “they’re creating opportunity for themselves and jobs for the community,” says Rizer, “a community they know and love — not in Silicon Valley, New York or Boston.” Take Minnesota, for instance. The Gopher State has long been the home of giant corporate employers like 3M, General Mills and Target, but a new slew of early stage companies and local retail tech startups are also now thriving, including a burgeoning solar-power industry.
To be sure, these Great Plains states are also among the whitest and least populated states in the U.S. and likely perform well because of other factors that correlate with economic mobility and opportunity, including lower levels of income inequality and racial and class segregation. As Rizer points out, it is much harder to raise statewide opportunity scores in a populous and diverse state like California. There are also growing questions as to whether many states in the region will be able to maintain their opportunity engines given that so many of their flagship public universities have been weakened in recent years by deep state budget cuts.
But, for now, it’s hard to argue with the numbers. And not only do these Great Plains states offer opportunity, but also affordability. Compare, for example, the median monthly cost to own a home (according to Nerd Wallet, using 2015 data from the U.S. Census Bureau) in California ($2,123) or Washington, D.C. ($2,312), to owning one in Wisconsin ($1,359) or Iowa ($1,170). Sure, winters will be a bit harsher, but you’ll be able to afford the extra heat and clothes. In short, if you want upward mobility, then you should think about moving upward in America to get it.