The Impacts of Neighborhoods on Intergenerational Mobility: Childhood Exposure Effects and County-Level Estimates

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We characterize the effects of neighborhoods on children's earnings and other outcomes in adulthood by studying more than five million families who move across counties in the U.S. Our analysis consists of two parts. In the first part, we present quasi-experimental evidence that neighborhoods affect intergenerational mobility through childhood exposure effects. In particular, the outcomes of children whose families move to a better neighborhood – as measured by the outcomes of children already living there – improve linearly in proportion to the time they spend growing up in that area. We distinguish the causal effects of neighborhoods from confounding factors by comparing the outcomes of siblings within families, studying moves triggered by displacement shocks, and exploiting sharp variation in predicted place effects across birth cohorts, genders, and quantiles. We also document analogous childhood exposure effects for college attendance, teenage birth rates, and marriage rates. In the second part of the paper, we identify the causal effect of growing up in every county in the U.S. by estimating a fixed effects model identified from families who move across counties with children of different ages. We use these estimates to decompose observed intergenerational mobility into a causal and sorting component in each county. For children growing up in families at the 25th percentile of the income distribution, each year of childhood exposure to a one standard deviation (SD) better county increases income in adulthood by 0.5%. Hence, growing up in a one SD better county from birth increases a child's income by approximately 10%. Low-income children are most likely to succeed in counties that have less concentrated poverty, less income inequality, better schools, a larger share of two-parent families, and lower crime rates. Boys' outcomes vary more across areas than girls, and boys have especially poor outcomes in highly-segregated areas. In urban areas, better areas have higher house prices, but our analysis uncovers significant variation in neighborhood quality even conditional on prices.



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