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Class in America: Why Your Status Depends on Where You Live

Seth Freed Wessler

Jenny Egan always dreamed of living in New York City, surrounded by artists and no shortage of the public interest law jobs she'd planned to pursue when she decided to go to law school. So when Egan and her then girlfriend, now wife, moved to New York they planned to stay.

But Egan, 34, a public defender, and her wife Kenne Dibner, a 32-year-old education researcher, left New York two years ago, mostly because the cost of living was becoming too heavy a burden. They now live in Baltimore. The couple is about to make a down payment on a home, something that was beyond their reach in New York.

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"I have education that gives me social mobility. But coming from a working class background, I am always worried about money," Egan said. "I thought that was a state of mind. But it turned out that I was living in a place that was too expensive to live, that is inhospitable to middle class people."

Photographer | Collection | Getty Images

Moving has always been at the center of achieving the American Dream: immigrants arriving on U.S. shores in search of opportunity; African Americans fleeing southern violence and seeking better paying jobs in the industrial north; white workers moving West for land and prosperity. Now, thanks to sometimes-vast cost disparities across the country, Americans' quality of life depends perhaps as much as ever on where they live. Relocating from an expensive zip code to a more affordable one is often the best — and sometimes only — avenue for families seeking a middle-class life.

"We've reached a point where it may not make sense to talk about a single American economy or to talk about opportunity in general," says Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution. "The American Dream looks very different in one place to the next."

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Social scientists often measure class with variables such as income, occupation and education. But when someone moves from one region to another, those variables can carry vastly different weight.

New York is among the three least affordable home buyer markets for people in Egan and Dibner's age group, along with Los Angeles and San Francisco, according to analysis by the website RealtyTrac. The average price of a home in Brooklyn, where they lived, is well over half a million dollars. In Baltimore, the average home price is under $200,000.

Cost of living comparisons generally show that it's about one third less expensive to live in Baltimore than New York. Down to the cost of a dentist appointment, the couple's new home is cheaper than New York. According to calculations by the Council for Community and Economic Research, a dentist visit is $32 cheaper in Baltimore than Brooklyn. They save $0.45 on a box of Kleenex and about $1.25 on a six-pack of beer.

"It's a totally different world when it comes to what it costs to live happily here," Egan, who earns approximately the same amount in Baltimore as she would in a similar job in New York. Her new city promised a proximity to the kinds of urban energy she loved about New York at a price they could manage. The home the couple bought was valued at just over $200,000, a fraction the price of similar property in New York.

Housing costs are most families' biggest expenditure. The cost of keeping a roof over a family's head is also the single biggest reason that Americans find themselves priced out of the places they live.

Because moving from one city to another requires having a level of economic stability, in economic hard times, rates of migration tend to decline. During the recession and its immediate aftermath, Americans largely stayed in one place and waited out the economic storm. New data suggests that compared to the pre-recession years, economic anxieties may still be holding many young Americans from venturing out. But even as the overall shifts of population have slowed, the stark disparities in costs between regions remain a steady feature of the American economy landscape.

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"The cost of living enters into the decision to leave," says Brookings Institution Demographer William Frey. "It's about the kind of salary you'll make too, but that's adjusted to the cost of living.

There's historically been a middle class flight from expensive urban areas to less expensive areas. "

Lower costs, less mobility

The pursuit of middle class prosperity is further complicated because moving to a less expensive region doesn't guarantee a chance at long-term upward mobility. Recent research from a group of economists has shown vast regional disparities in the likelihood that a kid born at the bottom of the economic ladder will rise to the top.

"You have pockets across the U.S. that have incredibly low rates of mobility, lower than nearly any place in the world. You have other places in the U.S. with some of the highest rates of mobility in the world," said Harvard's Nathan Hendran, a researcher on the mobility study. In New York, for example, just under 10 percent of kids born into the bottom fifth of the economy make it to the top fifth. By comparison, in Baltimore, it's just 6.5 percent. Mobility rates are even lower in swaths of the Southeastern United States.

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"What this means is it's hard to talk about mobility as a single U.S. problem. We see enormous variation in terms of who rises up," Hendran said.

The challenge for families is that the cost of living is often through the roof in high-mobility cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. But while they remain relatively mobile, according to the economists' research, that that only helps lower-income families if they can afford to stay. Too often, working-class families are pushed out and can't afford to move to other high-mobility areas.

"These are complicated decisions made of many parts," says Frey. "People usually aren't considering the long term mobility effects of a place."

That's certainly true for Egan and Dibner. For them, the decision was quite simple. "We want to live in a place where we can build a community and not do so at the cost of everything else." As they prepare to move into a new home in Baltimore, that's what they say they've found. "Living in a place that was too expensive for us was not good for our well-being."