Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
The Best and Worst Places to Grow Up in the U.S. (nytimes.com)
182 points by nepstein on May 4, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 87 comments

Interesting read. In 2008, with the help of the US embassy in Baghdad, my family and I were admitted as refugees. An American friend of mine who I worked with back in Baghdad helped us rent a place in Reston, a small town in Fairfax county. The rent was $1250 for a small 2 bedroom condo. For refugees like us with over 20K in debt, the rent was extremely high, but we wanted to be in this area because there were a lot more opportunities compared to other places we could have gone to. I was 23 years old at the time, and within five years I went from being a support engineer, to a support lead, then a manager, then a director, then a CEO of a Bain Capital Ventures backed company to now attempting to build my own company. Compared to many other Iraqis I know who were admitted as refugees and lived in other areas of the country, I am doing better than most (career wise). Granted, I had lots of help, and was lucky to have had the chance to work with and learn from many bright people, but I truly believe that being here in this area is one of the top reasons I had more success than others. Obviously I am not saying this the best area in the country, but it's a pretty good place to be in and start from.

Gotta tell ya, Reston and NoVA is the land of A-rab opportunity.

(For those not familiar with Northern Virginia, ironically the only place I speak more Arabic outside of Arab countries than anywhere else, specifically in the United States, even after hearing NJ is Little Egypt.)

Anyway, cool story, man. Would love to see you write more about it!

I am surprised to hear you say that you speak more Arabic in this area than anywhere else in the US. I think MI, NJ, and CA have much larger Arab communities. At any rate, I think immigrants in general should move to areas where they are forced to learn more about their "new" country to better integrate than isolate themselves within these communities.

Well, I also had a long-term relationship with a Lebanese-American person. That might have skewed it. I also studied it as a major, which helped self-select my friends.

In Virginia, you meet many new immigrants. And in Bethesda area of Maryland and the surrounding area of DC, there are many established Lebanese families (gathering from the church events and more formal social events I was invited to).

Again, these are one man's anecdotes.

You might find this episode of This American Life interesting


similar story of a refugee attributing his good fortune to chance

I'll avoid posting any spoilers

I listen to This American Life podcast occasionally, but never heard this one before. I really enjoyed it, thank you. I understand why Emir consider's himself lucky, and I think that most immigrants do too. Maybe because we never thought it was possible for us to escape our war torn countries and have normal lives again. I really don't know, but I do feel lucky. By the way, checkout The Moth. I think you'll really like it.

it takes at least a couple of generations to instill that sense of entitlement :)

Much more interesting than the original post, thanks for posting it.

> Reston

Watch out for the Ebola-infected lab monkeys :)

Welcome to the States, and congrats with your successes; your life story already sounds like something worthy of an inspirational (auto)biography.

Thank you. The time I spent with the US military as a linguist back in Baghdad is much more interesting. I might write it about sometime soon.

I'm sorry for what happened in Iraq. I'm glad you were able to get out of there and succeed here in the States.

Mate, if you're ever in Minneapolis, let me know - I'll buy you a drink (alcoholic or not) and show you the sights. I'd love to hear your story.

Thank you. I've been to Minneapolis a couple of times on business trips, and really liked it. My body couldn't handle its harsh winter though. One of the worst cold weathers I've ever experienced in my life.

It can be a little chilly, but nowhere near as cold as North Dakota! The summers are really nice, though.

Would love to buy you a beer and hear more of your story, should you visit SF.

I might take you up on that offer. Thinking about visiting SF soon to see if its time for me to move down there.

Please email if you do.


This is a very cool interactive article. You land on its best guess for the county you are in (easy, sure) but you don't realize that until you've read through what feels like a "local news" article detailing the average income opportunities and discrepancies in the county and surrounding areas. The focus is on each county instead of the typical approach to these executions which is to provide big filtering options and a heat map and tabular data.

Yeah, I respect the effect, but it was really weird at first. I don't live in a county that makes national news but on occasion, so to see the New York Times talking specifically about my county and its neighbors ticked something in my head and made me start to think this was a problem specifically in my area of national note, not the application of a national study to my locale.

felt too personalized and felt like someone was snooping in on me ;)

I started to read the article before it fully loaded - the first few lines initially read "Location matters – enormously. If you’re poor and live in the New York area, it’s better to be in Putnam County than in the Bronx." And then it switched to my area. Very cool, could have been a lot more slick - but very interesting approach to creating "local" news.

I think the default is the New York example, I briefly saw that before it switched to "If you’re poor and live in Connecticut, it’s better to be in Tolland County than in Fairfield County or New Haven County."

Defaulting to Manhattan, apparently, if one is in Budapest.

Yeah, once I figured this out I went there from my VPS in the UK. Looks like Manhattan is the default for outside the US.

I have great respect for the code chops of the NYTimes, particularly since I work for another major newspaper and I'm very plugged in to the latest out of the Valley. Wonderful work they do over there.

A little bit disingenous, perhaps, that no matter your location it is referred to as "the focus of this article".

it it technically accurate though.

they use your local data several times throughout the article.

I think this is one of the best examples of a news article written in 2015.

Agreed. If there was a "code awards" for newspapers, this would win it for this year, so far.

As someone who lifted myself out of childhood poverty by my bootstraps, a few observations...

1. Role model availability plays a huge part in what kids think they can be. I didn't have good role models when I grew up. Except for teachers and doctors I encountered, I rarely met educated middle-class adults, and even more rarely met upper class. I think this is a big aspect of the neighborhood thing... what kinds of people live in that neighborhood? What is the social life of the parents?

2. Tribalism goes both ways. The poor distrust the middle class as much as the middle class distrusts the poor. A great deal of the business transactions the poor experience are exploitation, businesses that take advantage of the weakness of the poor, either by force (this is the only deal you'll get), or by ignorance (trust me, you'll do great!).

So the benefits of living in a better neighborhood are that there are better adult examples for children, and there are professional services that have to provide to more sophisticated and strong middle-class customers as well as the poor.

As I understand it, this comes with the drawback of separating people from the communities they came from. For better or for worse.

In public policy, that's going to be a killer.

Interesting, I grew up in eastern SD, pretty much right in the big cluster of deep blue counties in the middle of the country on the map.

I'm trying to think of what could be responsible for the above average outcomes in this area, and not coming up with much. The best reason I have is that it's a very family focused area. The 'default' path for most people is to get married, have kids, and put parenting before their career. This is quite different from what I see now, living in the bay area.

I'm from that area as well, and I thought the standout difference was that the schools were just really really good ~15-40 years ago. There's been a divestment from education in recent years, so if my theory is correct we should see worse outcomes in a decade or so.

I grew up in central MN, and I agree that strong support of public education is likely the driving factor.

My rural county was, astonishingly, in the 80th percentile and my first thought was energy jobs over the last decade. A quick google search gave me this map:


When overlaid on top the NYT map, seems to smooth out some of the outliers.

I grew up in a not-so-blue area in NC but of the people I knew from school that have gone onto success it's been more through parents retiring and passing down solid local businesses. Most of those who have gone onto 'bigger' things have moved out to areas with more opportunities.

I think it's the impact of outliers. For a county with a small population, only a few people need to do really well to significantly raise the average. There are hardly any downside outliers, only upside outliers when the average is around $40k.

Areas where children are disproportionately less likely to be married than their same-income peers at age 26 will be reported as having lower income mobility in this analysis since it uses household income.

It seems like this analysis has independently identified locations of long-term concentrated high poverty in the US. It's also interesting to note how much smaller the effect of growing-up in a location has on the future earnings of those in the upper classes.

Counties are a crude way in which to break down this data, however, as many urban counties comprise a huge variance in income.

In metros like the Bay Area, where people routinely commute across county borders for work and housing, this analysis doesn't show how upper-middle-class to wealthy areas like San Mateo effectively outsource the housing of the working poor to places like Alameda county (mostly to places like East Oakland), thus compounding the concentration of poverty.

At the least, I'd like to see the actual income/wealth (and race) breakdown of the population of the counties highlighted, to give more context to the maps.

EDIT: clarification

I think urbanization matters in this county level set of stats.

Look at upstate NY, counties in central NY with economies in freefall have good outcomes vs more prosperous counties with less urban population.

Having grown up in a small town in my teenage years and NYC in my younger years, it makes sense to me. People care about the neighbors in small towns. In the city, not so much.

The article is mildly interesting in its own right, however, the localization of the writing based on the selected county (defaults to a guess based off of your IP address I imagine) is extremely...unnerving? Not because I like to think I'm hidden. I know my location is easy to find, but the way the article went about it was just off.

I think if it made more of an effort upfront to show that certain aspects of the following article will change based on your location and identified what those parts were, the effect would have been cool instead of weird.

Looking at a handful of examples throughout the country, it seems like the poor have better outcomes growing up in suburban, mostly-white counties (e.g., rich suburbs) versus urban, racially diverse counties (e.g., counties encompassing the major city center of a metro area)

Because the "inner city" culture demonizes people who live and work hard in the suburbs.

I noticed this in high school, when it started becoming popular for inner city families to ship their kids out to the suburban schools to get them away from "bad influences". Many of those kids had already been programmed by their peers to think that working hard and doing well was uncool.

I think American culture as a whole demonizes people who work hard and try to not be too cool or edgy.

I think the American way is achieving/working hard, but not advertising it. There's a sense of rebellion in most Americans; and I'm glad it's there. We don't like conformity. Yes, it can backfire. As to cool, or edgy--I don't know. It seems like the nerd look is in? (I don't like the thick black glasses. Especially, if you don't need glasses.)

The American desire to succeed brings a lot of pressure. I sometimes think we want too much--too quick. I think about our suicide rate and cringe.

We don't like conformity.

Ooo... yes you do. As an Australian travelling across the US in 2009, I felt a little stifled at social expectations. Americans like to point at crazy people and other outliers as examples of their freedom, but there's a lot of social conservatism. Simple examples include political speeches that love to mention god (don't even think of being an atheist), and whatever you do, don't criticise the troops. And there's definitely more conformity against casual swearing than back home.

One archaic but interesting example was when I stayed with a couple of ex-pat retirees. I brought them a small present as thanks for letting me stay with them, apologising that it wasn't much as I was on a shoestring. They mentioned that amongst their age group, there was this weird phenomenon where if you visited with someone, it didn't matter how many thank-you presents you bought during the visit, or how much you spent entertaining your hosts - if you didn't send a 'thank you' note when you got home, it was a minor scandal. They did care to mention that it didn't really happen with younger people anymore, but it was common with their age group.

>We don't like conformity.

I forget if there is a name for this phenomena, probably, but people are strongly biased towards thinking that they are open minded, that they don't like conformity etc. Everyone likes to think that they are accepting of new ideas, that they are adventurous, that they are forging their own path and so on.

Conversely no one likes to them of themselves as being prone to conformity, sensitive to peer pressure, fearful of ideas that challenge their own assumptions or fearful of being exposed to criticism or ridicule.

As a result people are very fond of saying that they are open minded and that they don't like conformity even though its not necessarily borne out by their actions.

Its also worth keeping in mind that this kind of belief is closely tied to a person's identity (as they see it) so challenging it can result in them getting extremely defensive and angry. By challenging it you are pointing out the gap between how they actually are and how they imagine themselves to be.

/armchair psychology

Looking at Wells vs Allen County IN.

Allen County has better opportunities, higher per family income, and a substantially higher minority population. The map shows a $5.5K advantage for the poor white suburb, so it seems that race matters more than the rich part.

Zoom way out to the national level. Looks like the empty towns in the middle of nowhere do the best -- because they force you to move out to get a job. Also, no one there is having decent jobs just appear locally in front of them, so you have to make yourself look good on paper to get one of those far-away jobs.

There are other factors that obviously affect this, but looks like that's the real dominant factor. Drastically changing location is the best way to quickly increase wage, and these towns do that, like tossing a young bird out of a nest.

By age 26...

At age 26 I was in more debt than I was at any point in my life... Basically this completely ignores time and money invested in education.

And I'm not sure how one would control for it if the cut-off is at 26, because people who did odd jobs in college would come out way better off than those who haven't.

To be fair, it looks at income, not debt or wealth, so the effects of student loans wouldn't matter (except, perhaps, in indirect ways)

True, but as you said, income can originate from existing wealth especially for the very wealthy.

Overall, it looks a little suspicious to me because the Manhattan island looks like one of the worst places to move to especially for upper class, but also has one of the highest education levels in the county.

The problem with Raj Chetty’s 2013 work on social mobility was that it generates absurd results — West Virginia is a great place for social mobility, while Atlanta and Charlotte are terrible — because he refuses to intelligently consider race in his analysis.

Over the generations, the different races in America regress toward different means. So white kids growing up in almost all white West Virginia tend to do better than their parents because they are likely to get the heck out of supposedly high opportunity West Virginia (which you and me know is the worst place in White America), especially for places like Charlotte and Atlanta, which Chetty sees as black holes of low social mobility.

In contrast, Atlanta attracts affluent college graduate black families. Their kids tend to regress part way back toward the black mean, so it makes Atlanta look bad under Chetty’s methodology.

But in the real world, his results are close to 180 degrees backwards to wise advice: if you are white and young in West Virginia, hit the road; if you are black and looking for a community with a lot of black college graduates to be good role models for your kids, consider Atlanta’s suburbs.

As I explained on my blog in 2014:

Notice that according to Chetty West Virginia is an oasis of income mobility in the East, while nearby North Carolina is an abyss of stasis. Yet, lots of people raised in West Virginia who have something on the ball have moved to North Carolina to get ahead in life.

Since West Virginia is only about 5% black and has attracted very few Hispanics and Asians, the bottom 20% of West Virginians in income are majority white, so their children tend to regress toward the white mean, which is higher than the black mean. The bottom 20% in income in the Charlotte or Atlanta area is highly black, so their children tend to regress toward the black mean. Thus, West Virginia comes out looking better for social mobility than Atlanta and Charlotte in Chetty’s methodology.

This doesn’t mean that if you had a peek around the Rawlsian curtain of ignorance, you’d choose to be born in West Virginia because of its strong social mobility. If you knew you were going to be born white, West Virginia would probably be last on your list of states to be born into. Nor does it mean that Blue State policies increase social mobility relative to red state policies. It’s just mostly Moynihan’s Canadian Border effect in action.

And then I beat up Chetty’s methodology some more here.

The general lesson of the success of Chetty’s Malcolm Gladwell-quality work is that race is such a minefield that it inclines everybody, even sharp nonwhite guys like Chetty, into Orwellian crimestop, or protective stupidity.

If we want our presidential candidates to get access to better social policy discourse, we need to stop wrecking the careers of the Jason Richwines, James D. Watsons, and Larry Summers for the crime of telling the truth.


The data seems very weird for my home county (Sanders, MT). A few factors might contribute to this:

1. There are a lot of troubled youth 'programs' there. Wealthy parents send their children to a depopulated part of Montana to keep them out of trouble, and then they return to the advantages of their family's income. One member of my high school's graduating class works for his dad's investment bank, for instance.

2. The data might not include people who don't graduate high shcool(?) or it might not include dishwashers and convenience store clerks. I'd like to know how the data was gathered.

3. Small sample sizes which include outliers give distorted results. One early-stage Dropbox engineer makes a big difference when the entire county graduated 300 people from high school that year.

The Montana data seemed odd to me too (I'm in Missoula). However, they ranked Richland county as #1 for income mobility. The oil boom in Sidney is likely a large part of that data.

Wow, it seems to be all about race. Blacks and native Americans get screwed.

Very nice analysis of the policy implications of NYT's amazing visualizations: http://www.vox.com/2015/5/4/8546709/moving-to-opportunity

It would be nice to have race as a filter/comparison in addition to gender. Very nice work.

Says a lot about a mindset, when the best and worst place to grow up is only measured by income.

I was pretty astonished at how low the reported median rents were in the table near the end. Then I saw the footnote: "Median rent is for 2000, in 2012 dollars."

Two thing in this article are unclear:

1. Top X% of what? The top 1% of earners in the community? The nation?

2. Does income data for a "child" reflect back on all the locations they previously lived or does it reflect solely on the county they currently live in? e.x. If I am a child who moved many times, and at age 26 live in a place where I did not grow up, which locations' income differences are affected by my income?

Read the fine print at the end.

1. Annual income of 500k in the 80's and 90's using 2012 dollars 2. County kids born from '80 to '86 living in during the 80s and 90s.

Basically, if you don't fit the profile of a family that never moved from the same house in the suburbs, you aren't included. Also, take a look at the national map. It would seem the plains are the best place for upward mobility, but I get the feeling they forgot to control for some confounding variable.

Also, the breakdowns show some Simpsons paradox, where individual counties might be very good for boys or girls, but are on average much worse. I'm sure a racial breakdown would show similar issues.

I come from a fairly poor family in a smelly, provincial, meth-infested smalltown in the Midwest, and moved to a place in the Southwest that is much nicer. I noticed that there was much more measured mobility in my hometown than where I moved to. And then it occurred to me that because there was mobility, I could get the hell out. I'm not sure what that means about the measurements.

Their county map has some holes. Benson County ND is missing along with a lot of other counties in the state (haven't looked at other states yet). If you search Ramsey County ND you can see the blank counties (one of which is a reservation).

As a military brat who rarely spent more than two years in a given location, I wonder if there is any data pertinent to my case. Anecdotally my peer group largely out-earned their parents, but that is not really what's being addressed here.

Interestingly, no matter how rich your family is, you're still worse off in the West.

I think they are mistaking 'cause' for 'correlation'

Did you mean to say it the other way around? "Mistaking correlation for causation?" In any case, I don't think they're inaccurately representing the data. They're taking all the data and saying "children who live here are likely to make x% more/less than the national average," which is true. You run the numbers, and that's the result. The correlations are the data.

The article does explicitly discusses this as well, saying: "To remove variation that was simply caused by different types of people living in different areas, Mr. Chetty and Mr. Hendren based the latest estimates on the incomes of more than five million children who moved between areas when they were growing up in the 1980s and 1990s. These estimates are causal: They suggest moving a given child to a new area would in fact cause him or her to do better or worse."

They say that it suggests that this is the case, and discuss what the researchers did to try to isolate cause.

I respect the skill behind the IP-specific text. But the approach, albeit clever, produced a less useful article. Comparing multiple regions requires knowing the names of relevant counties.

Seems a little inaccurate. My county in Appalachia is showing 17% higher and blue. The mean salary there is about $20k/yr and the unemployment rate is at least 20%.

So if you grow up there and move somewhere with better pay, you'll have a huge boost to your income?

I need to dig into the paper's methodology myself, but a similar situation struck me as possible for the high income areas that show low gains.

For example, say you grow up rich in the Bay Area. Then move to the midwest for work. Your household income in the Bay growing up might have been 300k. Then in Minneapolis, MN you and your husband earn 200k total.

You're standard of living has stayed the same or even increased, even though your household income has gone down by 33%.

No data for the county I grew up in (Miami-Dade in Florida). It's a pretty dense and popular area to live in, I'm surprised they don't have data for it

The localized text of the article based on where the user agent is located seems likely to screw up their SEO.

But, fortunately, not all journalism and data presentation has to revolve around SEO. (I have no idea if your statement is true or not however.)


Wow! This is a real sleeper. You risk unknowingly revealing your location when commenting on this type of story.

Websites always know your IP address. Some forums show you when you post. But mostly they don't let on.

Yes, but I think the point is that this page's content changes based on your IP address. By commenting here about what you read there, you may accidentally give subtle hints about your location to all HN readers, not just this site or HN's servers.

That's a good point, which didn't occur to me.

Unless you're using a VPN of course :-)

Right :) Or Tor.

It shows you a piece of just how tragic Native American reservations are.

Utah is doing fabulous according to this graph.

Heartening: No data for my home county.

Because money tells you how well off you are in life. Rob a bank successfully you have lots of money but a poor life. and this is what the reality!

Sure, but you can't report the income, so it wouldn't show up in this data.

worst (from POV of financial/social outcome) place to grow - i guess it would be a black family. Best - probably a wealthy white family. Specific county doesn't really matter.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact