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The ’80s kids from Maine who climbed the economic ladder, and those who didn’t

By Darren Fishell, BDN Staff
Oct. 3, 2018 6:00 am

In a pocket of Portland’s West End, the fates of the haves and have-nots born around 1980 diverged the most in the state, according to a study connecting where people grew up to their later earnings and quality of life.

There, people who grew up in middle-income households were twice as likely as their lower-income neighbors to end up among the top fifth of earners in their peer group nationally.

The research project, called The Opportunity Atlas, delivers a nationwide picture of how people born between 1978 and 1983 were faring economically in their 30s, based on where they grew up and the dynamics of their neighborhood.

The dataset is unique for tracking those children from the places where they grew up to where they live now. For instance, a child who grew up in Bangor during that time but now lives in New York City would be mapped and included in data for Bangor.

The study looked at a number of different outcomes, including the chance that children born to homes at specific income levels would bring in higher earnings later in life.

For instance, children born to low-income families in Falmouth, Scarborough and Gray had roughly as good a chance at high earnings in their 30s as children born to high-income families in Bangor during that time.

The study defines income categories in 2015 dollars, with low-income families bringing in the equivalent of $25,000 a year, middle-income as about $55,000 and high-income as about $95,000.

The researchers focused on people’s incomes in their 30s because they have found that earnings in a person’s 30s are a reliable baseline for lifetime earnings. And while the research focuses on neighborhoods during a specific sliver in time, they said they found underlying neighborhood conditions remain relatively stable.

The data provide some exceptions, revealing some pockets of Maine where neighborhood conditions have not remained stable. The mill towns Lincoln and Millinocket, communities hit hard in this decade by the closure of their central economic engines, are prime examples.

The study found that children who were born between 1978 and 1983 and grew up in those two towns were more likely to end up in the top fifth of their peers for earnings than children in most of Portland and Bangor.

That upward mobility stands against a national backdrop where most Maine children, across high and low income levels, had relatively slim chances of ending up in the top 20 percent of their peers for household earnings. Children who grew up in low-income households in Cumberland, Hancock, Piscataquis and York counties, on the other hand, had a better shot at climbing into the top 20 percent.

At the local level, those estimates come with sometimes high margins of error, because the researchers could not trace the earnings of each child born in those areas and had to estimate to fill in blanks.

In relatively poor Piscataquis County, children in Dover-Foxcroft and Guilford, in particular, had a good chance at rising from relatively low- to high-income households. In other parts of the county, estimates were subject to wider error ranges, such as in the sparsely populated stretch of land that includes Kokadjo, east of Moosehead Lake and west of Baxter State Park.

Overall, the estimates gauge how economic opportunity varies from community to community, showing generally that children who grow up in low-income households have a better chance at higher earnings later in life when they’ve grown up in better-educated communities with higher household median wages.

In a tract of South Portland that runs along Broadway and encompasses part of its Knightville neighborhood, children from low- and middle-income families had about the same chance of reaching the top 20 percent of earners later in life. Both had a roughly 14 percent chance of crossing into the top fifth of earners in their 30s.

In a tract of Portland, the disparity in upward mobility was even narrower, but the chances were also worse for everybody. Children from low- and middle-income families in a part of East Bayside had less than a 9 percent chance at high earnings by their 30s.

Overall, the study found that broad measures of a community or neighborhood’s economic health do not relate to overall economic mobility later in life.

“Our measures of children’s long-term outcomes are only weakly correlated with traditional proxies for local economic success such as rates of job growth, showing that the conditions that create greater upward mobility are not necessarily the same as those that lead to productive labor markets,” the researchers wrote.

Explore more of the data and findings from the project at OpportunityAtlas.org.

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to mainefocus@bangordailynews.com.

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