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Which U.S. Cities Offer the Highest Chances of Achieving the American Dream?

June 9, 2015
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Which U.S. Cities Offer the Highest Chances of Achieving the American Dream?
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America’s image as the land of opportunity has taken a hit amid media reports of growing income inequality and the difficulty many disadvantaged residents face in climbing the economic ladder. An astonishing 70% of people born into families in the bottom quintile of income distribution never make it to the middle class.

Are there places in the U.S. where people have better odds of moving up? Researchers from Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley, conducted what is being called the most detailed study of economic mobility in America to date. The Equality of Opportunity Project ranks cities across America on key measures of upward mobility.

NerdWallet analyzed the data to see which cities in each state offer the best opportunity for upward mobility. To do this, we equally weighted a city’s relative and absolute upward mobility measures, and also the chance for kids to move from the bottom fifth of income distribution to the top fifth.

Click on the points on the map to see which cities in each state offer the highest chances of achieving the American Dream.


Key takeaways

Linton, North Dakota, offers the highest chances for upward mobility. A child born to parents in the bottom fifth of earners in Linton has a nearly 30% chance of making it to the top fifth of earners. Children born to parents in the 25th percentile of earners will, on average, go on to become an above-average earner, rising to the 64th percentile on the income distribution.

Charleston, South Carolina, was the “worst of the best.” Out of all of the state-leading cities, Charleston had the lowest score for upward mobility.

Best region? Midwest. Five of the top 10 state-leading cities are in the Midwest.

Here are the top cities for upward mobility in the 39 states in this study. States with less than five cities in the study were omitted.


Place Relative upward mobility Absolute upward mobility Odds of moving from the
bottom 5th to top 5th
Weighted score
Linton, North Dakota 6.75% 63.55% 29.89% 98.19%
Glendive, Montana 21.40% 57.04% 26.67% 78.07%
Ord, Nebraska 18.83% 57.84% 23.92% 78.01%
Gillette, Wyoming 21.84% 55.51% 26.42% 76.12%
Vernal, Utah 23.47% 56.55% 25.34% 74.75%
Sioux Center, Iowa 24.17% 58.29% 23.08% 73.52%
Colby, Kansas 18.73% 56.41% 19.59% 72.49%
Perryton, Texas 24.49% 56.05% 23.28% 71.48%
Soda Springs, Idaho 14.86% 53.61% 17.70% 71.04%
Aberdeen, South Dakota 19.19% 54.72% 19.93% 70.97%
Burlington, Colorado 21.89% 55.83% 20.47% 70.46%
Roseau, Minnesota 18.58% 53.69% 18.75% 69.33%
Woodward, Oklahoma 26.08% 53.25% 20.00% 64.51%
John Day, Oregon 16.58% 49.72% 11.59% 60.18%
Monroe, Wisconsin 27.44% 51.02% 16.71% 58.22%
Pullman, Washington 25.43% 48.22% 14.24% 54.78%
Kodiak, Alaska 23.10% 45.73% 14.62% 54.70%
Hobbs, New Mexico 29.69% 49.13% 16.19% 54.32%
St. Marys, Pennsylvania 30.30% 48.18% 16.30% 53.10%
San Jose, California 23.55% 44.75% 12.93% 51.81%
Welch, West Virginia 27.51% 44.55% 15.99% 51.68%
Kirksville, Missouri 24.94% 47.21% 11.34% 51.37%
Ironwood, Michigan 29.77% 46.20% 12.14% 47.61%
Hazard, Kentucky 27.44% 42.68% 13.07% 47.15%
Heber Springs, Arkansas 28.83% 44.74% 10.96% 45.85%
Olney, Illinois 33.78% 47.32% 11.69% 45.12%
Safford, Arizona 30.92% 44.68% 11.06% 44.30%
Bluefield, Virginia 32.37% 44.03% 11.07% 42.64%
Many, Louisiana 41.33% 46.56% 15.16% 42.18%
Watertown, New York 33.11% 44.71% 10.12% 41.73%
Miami, Florida 26.67% 41.45% 7.30% 40.90%
Washington, Indiana 34.73% 43.46% 10.66% 39.93%
Defiance, Ohio 32.89% 43.70% 8.15% 39.04%
Ellijay, Georgia 27.61% 40.68% 6.50% 38.70%
Andrews, North Carolina 30.43% 40.83% 8.05% 38.24%
Cookeville, Tennessee 30.74% 41.25% 7.20% 37.54%
Jasper, Alabama 37.90% 41.94% 8.66% 34.18%
Gulfport, Mississippi 34.17% 39.33% 6.71% 32.75%
Charleston, South Carolina 34.36% 37.69% 4.45% 28.88%



All data are from The Equality of Opportunity Project. To determine which cities offered the best chances for upward mobility, we equally weighted each of the data points from the Equality of Opportunity Project study to assign each city a weighted score.

Data notes

The researchers who conducted the study use “commuting zones” to define cities. According to the study, “Commuting Zones are groups of counties that are defined based on commuting patterns. For example, if people in neighboring counties work in the same city, then those counties are likely to belong to the same Commuting Zone. Commuting zones are similar to metro areas, but have the advantage of covering rural areas as well.”

The commuting zone approach explains why some cities that fall on the border of two states (Sidney, Montana, and Eufaula, Alabama) are listed in neighboring states for this study.

In places where the number of children in an age group was less than 250, the results for that commuting zone (or city) weren’t reported to preserve confidentiality.

Kodiak, Alaska, image via iStock.