Pew Finds Many Children Fall Out of the Middle Class As Adults

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A middle-class upbringing does not guarantee the same status as an adult, according to a new report by Pew's Economic Mobility Project. Downward Mobility from the Middle Class: Waking Up from the American Dream considers potential factors that cause a third of Americans who grow up in the middle—defined as those between the 30th and 70th percentiles of the income distribution—to fall out of the middle as adults. 

“A variety of factors, including family background and personal choices, influence downward mobility from the middle class,” said Erin Currier, project manager of the Economic Mobility Project. “This report provides valuable information for policy makers who want to ensure that every child has the opportunity to achieve the American Dream.” 

The report measures downward mobility among black, white and Hispanic men and women raised in the middle class in three ways: the percent who fall out of the middle class, the percent who fall 20 or more percentiles below their parents' rank in the income distribution, and the percent whose income is 20 or more percent below their parents'. Across the three measures, the report finds: 

  • Those who are divorced, widowed or separated are more likely to fall down the economic ladder than those who are married.
  • If men and women raised in a middle-class home obtain education after high school, they are less likely to be downwardly mobile.
  • Low scores on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) correlate with downward mobility. 

The report also finds a gender gap in downward mobility, but it is driven entirely by a disparity between white men and white women. Thirty percent of white women fall out of the middle class, but only 21 percent of white men do. 

Additionally, race is a factor in who falls out of the middle class, but only for men. The report finds that: 

  • Thirty-eight percent of black men fall out of the middle, compared to 21 percent of white men. In contrast, white, black and Hispanic women are equally likely to drop out of the middle class.
  • Differences in average AFQT test scores are the most important observable factor (of those considered in this report) that account for the large downward mobility gap between black men and white men.

Methodology: This report draws from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) 1979 cohort, focusing on youth who were age 14-17 in 1979 and who lived in their parents' homes in 1979 and 1980.  Their economic status was then assessed in 2004 and 2006, when they were between the ages of 39 and 44.

By forging a broad and nonpartisan agreement on the facts, figures and trends related to mobility, the Economic Mobility Project is generating an active policy debate about how best to improve economic opportunity in the United States and to ensure that the American Dream is kept alive for generations that follow. 

The Pew Charitable Trusts' economic policy work aims to encourage an informed debate and promote practices that strengthen the U.S. economy. Pew is a nonprofit organization that applies a rigorous, analytical approach to improve public policy, inform the public and stimulate civic life.

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