The ability of American workers to be upwardly mobile in the economy depends heavily on where they live, according to a state-by-state analysis from Pew Charitable Trusts. The study, the first of its kind, found that workers in a group of states largely clustered in the Northeast and Midwest are more likely to achieve upward mobility, while workers in southern states are far less likely.
For the most part, the states in each group differ on one major characteristic: the states where upward mobility is more likely are almost all union states, while the states where mobility is less likely almost all are not. Of the eight states that outperform the national average for upward economic mobility, seven are union states, with Utah the lone exception. Eight of the nine that underperform the national average, however, are so-called “right to work” states, with Kentucky the only exception:
When relative mobility is considered, union states look even better. Every state but one (Utah) that outperforms the national average on relative mobility, defined as the percentage of residents starting in the bottom half of the national distribution who move up 10 or more percentiles in a 10-year period, is a union state. Meanwhile, 14 of the 15 states that come in below the national average are right-to-work states, with Missouri the only exception:
Though the study didn’t find (or attempt to find) a direct correlation between union representation and mobility, an economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Michigan told USA Today that higher mobility there is likely linked to higher wages in manufacturing and public sector jobs, both of which tend to be more heavily organized. Those ties also exist in the other union states, which rely more on manufacturing than the right-to-work states.
As ThinkProgress has previously noted, unions played a significant role in the construction of the American middle class, boosting the mobility of lower-income workers. The decline in union representation, meanwhile, correlates closely with a sharp rise in income inequality over the last 40 years. Other studies have shown that workers who join unions earn higher wages and are more likely to have health and retirement benefits, and that union membership increases the likelihood of upward economic mobility.