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Tom Dennis

Editor's note: The maps of the American Dream

There’s some great content in this month’s issue of Prairie Business. Nevertheless, my suggestion is that you pass it all by for the moment, and start reading the issue from the back.

That’s where you’ll find our monthly feature called “By the Numbers.”

And in my view, the maps on this month’s “By the Numbers” page represent the most important news about our region in a generation.

The maps are from the Opportunity Atlas, the incredible, interactive trove of information about American culture at

The Atlas uses research by Harvard’s Raj Chetty and others to show which parts of America give poor children the best chance of growing up to be middle-class or rich.

In 2017, the Star Tribune summed up the results this way:

“Of the best 100 counties in the United States in which to grow up poor, 77 are in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota,” the newspaper reported.

And “almost all of those are in farm country.”

Chetty himself described the phenomenon, when he spoke at St. Cloud State University in 2014: "This is an incredible, highly upwardly mobile area."

The researchers’ original paper identified five factors that strongly correlate with upward mobility. They are low levels of racial segregation and of income inequality, plus high levels of two-parent families, social capital and good schools.

And if that sounds like your own Midwestern hometown, that’s the point.

In the Opportunity Atlas that maps the American Dream, the pancake-flat Great Plains is home to some of the country’s loftiest peaks. If ever the maps start to show this cultural mountain range, they could identify it by the name suggested on our By the Numbers page: the High Mobilities.  

Tom Dennis

I welcome your feedback and story ideas. Call me at 701-780-1276 or email me at