Southeastern workers looking to improve their economic outlook may have been disheartened by a recently released Harvard study.

The report from the Equality of Opportunity Project received a good deal of attention for its data and its interactive maps and graphics at the project website www.equality-of-opportunity.org, as well as an interactive map on the New York Times website. The fairly stark imagery shows that it’s difficult to move too far up the economic ladder in much of the country.

Of course, there’s more to the data than meets the eye, said Von Bakanic associate professor of sociology at the College of Charleston.

In terms of social mobility, it’s much easier to go up one or two steps than to make a move from the bottom to the very top of the economic ladder, she said. And if you live someplace where the median income is very low, it doesn’t take much to move up.

“It’s a different scale from the bottom to the top in the Dakotas than it is in New York or California,” she said.

A difficult road

Among the 50 biggest cities, none in the Southeast rank among the top 10 for mobility, but Southeastern cities appear four times on the list of the bottom 10.

In other words, people in Atlanta, Raleigh, Charlotte, or Jacksonville, Fla., have a slimmer chance of moving from the bottom fifth to the top fifth of the economic ladder than their counterparts in Seattle, Pittsburgh or Boston.

Bakanic says yes, we’ve had more poverty in the American Southeast than in other parts of the country, but you can move out of poverty, if the right job structure is in place.

The recent fast-food worker strikes have drawn renewed attention to the problems of minimum wage employment.

“We’re not really paying the lowest rung on our employment ladder enough to support them and their families,” Bakanic said. What that leads to, in effect, is government subsidization of those workers through food stamps and publicly funded health care, she added. So finding a way to increase the minimum wage should be of interest to folks on all parts of the political spectrum.

Well-paid jobs

“It would be better for the economy if we had well-paid working class jobs,” by which she means things like production, maintenance and transportation of goods.

Which highlights the importance of BMW in Greenville and the port and Boeing in the Charleston region, because they provide those kinds of jobs and corresponding wages.

That’s the key. It’s not just job creation, it’s creation of more jobs at a higher level of pay, she said.

Even Friday’s jobless report held a few bright spots, such as the increase in college enrollment among those who have left the workforce or who have yet to enter. That will lead to a better educated workforce that’s better prepared to fill those better-paying jobs that can lead to more social mobility and a better way of life.

Go to postandcourier.com for the study summary and a link to the interactive graphics.