Research Briefing

The Faltering Escalator of Urban Opportunity

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.)

This historic reversal is little studied yet undeniably important.1 If non-college workers are

steering clear of thriving high-wage cities despite the escalator of economic opportunity these

cities offer, then policymakers should work to redress the economic, social, and informational

barriers that inhibit these beneficial moves. Alternatively, if non-college workers are fleeing

cities because the urban opportunity escalator is faltering, then policymakers need to

understand what has changed and shift policy toward either restoring urban opportunity or

redirecting workers elsewhere.

This research brief explores how the structure of opportunity offered by urban and nonurban

labor markets to college and non-college workers has changed since 1980. At the

core of understanding why non-college workers are no longer flocking to the cities is the

question of push versus pull. Are economic forces pushing non-college workers out of

thriving cities that otherwise offer strong labor market opportunities, or are the opportunities offered by these places eroding—meaning that their pull is weakening? Or, are both forces interacting? How should policy respond to these changing dynamics, if at all?