The Myth of Mobility

A new study finds that the best way to get ahead is to be born there.

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Americans enjoy an enduring belief that by dint of hard work and perseverance, anyone can attain the American dream.

Surveys find that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe it’s “still possible to start out poor in this country, work hard and become rich” while also discounting the value of family background and connections in achieving success. In a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center, just 18 percent of Americans said “belonging to a wealthy family” was “very important” for getting ahead.

But a mounting pile of evidence is beginning to show that family background is, in fact, determinative. Family incomes, for example, are highly correlated to rates of college attendance and completion.

Adding to this evidence is a new study – based on a unique longitudinal analysis of income tax data – finding that children largely inherit the income prospects of their parents.

“[C]hildren raised in low-income families will probably have very low incomes as adults, while children raised in high-income families can anticipate very high incomes as adults,” write co-authors Pablo Mitnik and David Grusky of the Stanford University Center on Poverty and Inequality in a report published by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Russell Sage Foundation.

In particular, the study finds, children raised in the wealthiest 10 percent of families can expect to enjoy incomes that are 200 percent larger than the expected incomes of children from the poorest 10 percent of families and 75 percent larger than the incomes of children from the middle class.

As a result of the persistence of these advantages – and disadvantages – from generation to generation, Mitnik and Grusky conclude: “[T]he United States is very immobile.”

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