Pursuing the American Dream

Economic mobility across generations


quick summary

Pew's latest report on economic mobility shows a mixed view. While a majority of Americans exceed their parents’ family income and wealth, the extent of their absolute mobility gains is not always enough to move them up the economic ladder.

The idea that all Americans have equality of opportunity regardless of their economic status at birth is the crux of the American Dream and a defining element of our national psyche. 

This report examines the health and status of that dream by analyzing Americans' movement up and down the economic ladder during the past generation.

Key Findings

Pursuing the American Dream uses the most current available data to measure mobility by family income and wealth, and personal earnings to reveal how closely tied a person's place on the economic ladder is to that of his or her parents'. Some of the highlights of the research include:

  • Eighty-four percent of Americans have higher family incomes than their parents did.
  • Those born at the top and bottom of the income ladder are likely to stay there as adults. More than 40 percent of Americans raised in the bottom quintile of the family income ladder remain stuck there as adults, and 70 percent remain below the middle.
  • African Americans are more likely to be stuck at the bottom and fall from the middle of the economic ladder across a generation.
  • A four-year college degree promotes upward mobility from the bottom and prevents downward mobility from the middle and the top.

Pew's study measures both absolute and relative mobility. Watch our video to learn more about the differences between the two. Considering both absolute and relative mobility together is essential to understanding the full picture of opportunity in America.

Media Contact

Benny Martinez

Officer, Communications


Related Experts

Erin Currier

Director, Financial Security and Mobility and Student Loans

Erin Currier directs projects on family financial security and mobility at The Pew Charitable Trusts. The project conducts original research to assess differences in family balance sheets across diverse U.S. households and the degree to which Americans’ short-term economic security relates to their longer-term economic mobility. View Profile