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Columbus' Young Adults Struggle To Climb Income Ladder

A decades-long study of individual wage earnings ranks Columbus poorly. Numbers show the city ranks last among major Ohio cities in upward mobility from one generation to the next. The study by economists at Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley shows it's hard to get ahead in Columbus. Among the 50 largest cities in America, Columbus ranks 45th, tied with Detroit, and worse than Cincinnati or Cleveland in providing higher income job opportunities from one generation to the next. Ohio State University economist Randy Olsen says he's not surprised.

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

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 Gahanna. 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. And so how many hours per week does that take to work three jobs? "During the summer when I'm not in school I work about 50 hours per week," Campbell said. 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 can will eventually 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," she said. Looking ahead 10 years, Campbell envisions only a modest income.

"Honestly, I'd be comfortable with $35,000. $40.000 would be great," Campbell 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 said. Jack Joyce of Columbus brings a longer perspective on the Columbus job market. "I'm 48," he said with a slight laughter. 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. The time when I was coming up the jobs were Timken, General Motors and things like that but when I began entering the work force those jobs no longer existed," Joyce said. 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," Olsen 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.