U.S. Intragenerational Economic Mobility from 1984 to 2004: Trends and Implications

Americans are increasingly worried about their economic mobility — over half say they have not moved ahead, and nearly a third said they have fallen behind. Yet the question remains: has it gotten harder for Americans to get ahead and stay ahead?

To address that concern, this report examines how Americans have moved up and down the income ladder over the last two decades. The report focuses on intragenerational mobility: how individuals' economic positions change within their own lifetimes in both relative and absolute terms.

The report, authored by Gregory Acs and Seth Zimmerman of the Urban Institute, finds that intragenerational mobility rates have changed little since the 1980s and there remains considerable stickiness or immobility at the bottom of the income distribution. More than 50 percent of individuals who start in the bottom will stay there ten years later, and less than seven in ten make it to the great American middle.

The report also reveals that educational attainment continues to be the primary driver of upward economic mobility out of the bottom, while race and gender as indicators of upward mobility have diminished over time.