By: Tami Luhby
May 10, 2012
NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Where do you have the best chance of climbing the economic ladder?
Try New Jersey or Maryland. Just don't go to Oklahoma or South Carolina.
Residents of eight states, primarily in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, have the best shot of moving on up, according to the Pew Economic Mobility Project, which just released what it calls the first state-level study on the subject.
But those living in nine southern states have the poorest chance of bettering their situations, the project found.
Economic mobility has entered the spotlight recently after the Occupy Wall Street movement called attention to the nation's growing income inequality problem. The growing divide between the haves and have-nots have led some to question whether the American Dream can still be achieved.
Pew found that it can still be, but where you live in America is a factor.
"Americans still believe in the American dream and that equal opportunity should exist for all," said Diana Elliott, the project's research manager. "The differences show there isn't equal opportunity for mobility in every state."
Getting off government assistance
The project looked at three different measures of economic mobility over a 10-year span:
--Absolute mobility, which examines residents' average earnings growth over the period.
--Relative upward mobility, which looks at the share of residents in the bottom half of the national earnings distribution who move up at least 10 percentiles.
--Relative downward mobility, which measures the percent of residents in the top half of the national earnings distribution who move down at least 10 percentiles.
The study focused on Americans born between 1943 and 1958 and measured their earnings when they were age 35 to 39 and again when they were age 45 to 49.
Nationwide, average earnings grew 17% over the period, while 34% of people experienced relative upward mobility and 28% lost ground.
Maryland, New Jersey and New York performed better than the national average on all three measures, while Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Utah had two measures that beat the national average.
On the flip side, Louisiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina had worse mobility on all three measures. Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas had more limited mobility on two of the measures.
The rest of the nation was not statistically different from the national average, though some states scored particularly well on one measure. Some 39% of Californians, for instance, experienced relative upward mobility, as did 43% of Colorado residents and 47% of Rhode Islanders.
Geographic mobility did not matter on a state level, Pew found, though it does matter to individuals. Those who move out of their birth states had better mobility on average than those who did not -- though only one-third of Americans leave the state in which they were born.
Pew's findings did not reveal why certain states did better than others, but the researchers say that on a national level, mobility is affected by education levels, savings and assets and neighborhood poverty levels.
That the South has lower than average opportunities for advancement is not that surprising to some.
The South had the highest share of counties with the greatest income inequality, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Some 32% of Southern counties ranked in the top fifth in terms of inequality, versus 12% in the Northeast and West each