Despite Growing Economic Disparity, Bozeman Gets High Marks For Upward Mobility

A boy on a parent's shoulders lifts an American Flag

We’re probably all aware of the challenges that income disparity in Bozeman have caused, from lack of housing for lower-income residents to lack of employees for local jobs. But Gallatin County still has a critical advantage that helps poorer youth get ahead: our tight-knit community. According to a massive new study, the interconnectedness between rich and poor is the most important factor in helping people escape poverty. How does it work, and how can libraries help? Read on.

If the American Dream is that every child has a chance to achieve a better standard of living than their parents, then our nation has experienced a sobering wake up call.  From 1980 on, children born in America have earned less money on average than their parents, with the downward trend accelerating over time.  The topic is the focus of this year’s SymBozium, the Library’s free civil discourse event held at the Ellen on September 28. At SymBozium, thought leaders from Harvard University’s Opportunity Insights research team, The Equity Project, and Montana State University will interact with the audience to explore the question, “Is the American Dream Dead?”

The new study by Opportunity Insights reveals what may well be the most important factor for poor children to buck the trend and climb the income ladder even as financial inequality grows. [You can read the New York Times from anywhere for free through the Bozeman Library’s website.] 

That key factor isn’t the quality of their school, their neighborhood’s poverty level, or the racial composition of their community. Rather, it’s how well-off their friends are. In places where poor people have more rich friends, children grow up to make significantly more money than in places where they only know other poor people. The thinking is that they develop the networks that lead to better jobs and learn tips for navigating the road to financial success from wealthy friends.

According to Times reporting on the research, the effect of a wealthy friend network is profound. The article explains, “If poor children grew up in neighborhoods where 70 percent of their friends were wealthy — the typical rate of friendship for higher-income children — it would increase their future incomes by 20 percent, on average.”

Gallatin County ranks among the top in the nation for scores of economic connectedness — the scientists’ term for the share of high-income friends among people with low income. Our county is in the 96th percentile for this metric. And as expected, Gallatin County also has a high upward income mobility score, ranking in the 79th percentile. You can explore the Opportunity Insights data here.

SymBozium Graphic advertising Sept. 28 event at the Ellen Theatre, Bozeman MT

People in our community are exposed to more people across the economic spectrum and are more likely to befriend those people than almost anywhere else in the US. One place that encourages that co-mingling? Public libraries.

Yet as income inequality accelerates, economic connectiveness is splintering across the board. That’s why experts point to expanding services at libraries that get wealthier patrons into their local library as well as lower-income patrons. Offerings such as maker spaces and recording studios bring both groups together in one physical space, encouraging the economic connectiveness that lifts our entire community. At the same time, free programs and services that encourage struggling readers, help with English language learning, connect people with grants and scholarships, and provide access to free mobile internet and laptop computers all directly benefit lower-income families working to break out of poverty.

People in our community are exposed to more people across the economic spectrum and are more likely to befriend those people than almost anywhere else in the US. One place that encourages that co-mingling? Public libraries.

The Bozeman Public Library’s renovations begin this September and will create new learning labs that will function as creative and technological maker spaces. We’ll even have a new recording studio for individual or small groups of musicians and podcasters to use. And right at the center of the Library, a new Hub will bring our community together at communal seating for work, study, and casual conversation. Want to learn more? Visit our BPL Forward page to see what’s in store for the renovation and beyond.

What do you think of the American Dream? Is it still alive today? Was it ever real? We want to hear from you. Join us for SymBozium on September 28 and share your perspective.