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Research Briefs | August 3, 2020

The Faltering Escalator of Urban Opportunity

David Autor


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For much of modern U.S. history, workers were drawn to cities by opportunities for the more enriching work offered there and the higher pay that came with it. As the eminent urban economist Edward L. Glaeser observed, “…cities have been an escape route for the underemployed residents of rural areas, such as the African-Americans who fled north during the Great Migration” (Glaeser, 2020). However, an important aspect of this opportunity escalator has broken down in recent decades. The migration of less-educated and lower-income individuals and families toward high-wage cities has reversed course (Ganong and Shoag, 2017): Since 1980, college-educated workers have been steadily moving into affluent cities while non-college workers have been moving out. (In this research brief, ‘college’ refers to workers with a four-year college degree; ‘non-college’ refers to workers with less than a four-year college degree, e.g., associate degrees, high school diploma, or less than high school.)