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Columbus Trails Cleveland and Cincinnati in Income Mobility

Among the 50 largest cities in America, Columbus ranks 45th in providing higher-income job opportunities from one generation to the next -- tied with Detroit and worse than Cincinnati or Cleveland.

Ohio State University economist Randy Olsen says he’s not surprised.

“The economic situation of Ohio has been slipping for decades, decades," he said. "The broad sweep for the, roughly speaking, 30 years that I’ve been in Columbus has been down.”

The Equality of Opportunity Project tracked personal incomes for the past 30 years. It shows wage stagnation. Young adults have little chance of better earnings than their parents.

21-year-old Megan Campbell is trying to beat the economic odds. She grew up in what she describes as a middle-class home in suburban Columbus.

Now, she works three part time jobs. She waits table at a breakfast diner, grooms dogs at a Gahanna business, and works at a local high school helping run the Athletic department.

“I think I make about $24,000 a year, yeah, $24,000," Campbell said. “During the summer when I’m not in school I work about 50 hours a week."

Campbell says during school she cuts her work hours to about 35 per week. She’s working toward a degree in sports administration. But she’s doubtful she will ever earn more than her parents.

“Where your parents are is really hard to get out of where you’re either right around that area or lower than them,” Campbell said.

Looking ahead ten years, Campbell envisions only a modest income.

“Honestly, I’d be comfortable with $35,000. $40,000 would be great," she said.

Economist Olsen says Campbell has a chance to climb the income ladder, even though she wants to stay in Columbus, close to family and friends. He says especially if she keeps her current work ethic.

“Her ability to move up to a substantially higher rate of pay is going to depend a lot on how aggressive and how hard she works,” Olsen says.

Jack Joyce of Columbus brings a longer perspective on the Columbus job market.

“I’m 48,” he laughs lightly.

Joyce has lived in Columbus his entire life. He drives a truck for a living, describes himself as middle class. But he laments the loss of good-paying jobs in Columbus during the past 30 years.

“A lot of those jobs your parents might have had when it become your time to get in the work field, most of them don’t exist," Joyce said. "The time when I was coming up the jobs were Timken, General Motors and things like that, then when I began entering the workforce, those jobs no longer existed."

Joyce says he’s kept his current job for 18 years. But he remains anxious about his future and the future of the next generation of workers.

“And now where we are with computer technology continually changing, a lot of jobs that are here now are not going to be here when my kids or my grandkids are of working age,” Joyce said.

Olsen says the future vitality of the Columbus labor market depends in large part on civic and business leadership and how it responds to the city’s low ranking in income mobility.

“These findings are not a sentence that says Columbus is doomed to be at 45 forever," he said.

Olsen describes Columbus as a good place to live and work, but he says the national study shows the city also has a problem.

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.