Economic Mobility in America

Feb 20, 2008

For more than two centuries,economic opportunity and the prospect of upward mobility have formed the bedrock upon which the American story has been anchored. Indeed, a desire to escape from the constraints of more class-based societies was the driving force luring many of our ancestors to this New World, and millions of immigrants continue to flood our borders in search of the American Dream.

Americans continue to believe that all one needs to get ahead is individual effort, intelligence, and skills: coming from a wealthy family is far from a necessity to achieve success in America. Many Americans are even unconcerned about the historically high degree of economic inequality that exists in the United States today, because they believe that big gaps between the rich and the poor and, increasingly, between the rich and the middle class, are offset by a high degree of economic mobility.

Economic inequality, in this view, is a fact of life and not all that disturbing as long as there is constant movement out of the bottom and a fair shot at making it to the top. In short, much of what the public believes about the fairness of the American economy is dependent on the generally accepted notion that there is a high degree of mobility in our society.

Are those beliefs justified? Is there actually a high degree of mobility in the United States? Is America still the land of opportunity? With new data and analysis, this volume addresses these questions by measuring how much economic mobility actually exists in America today. In sum, the research reviewed in this volume leads us to the view that the glass is half empty and half full.

The American Dream is alive if somewhat frayed. Most people are better off than their parents, but slower and less broadly shared economic growth has made the economy more of a zero-sum game than it used to be, with very high stakes for the winners. Some subgroups, such as immigrants, are doing especially well. Others, such as African Americans, are losing ground. Americans have generally been tolerant of unequal outcomes in the past, even as gaps between the rich and the poor have risen, since most believe that opportunities to get ahead are abundant and that hard work and skill are well rewarded.

We find considerable fluidity in American society. One’s family background as a child, measured in terms of either income or wealth, has a relatively modest effect on one’s subsequent success as an adult, especially if one grew up in middleclass circumstances. Those at the top or bottom of the ladder are somewhat less mobile. In addition, there is no evidence that opportunity has increased in a way that might offset the slower and less broadly shared growth of income and wealth that families have experienced.

The previous findings of the Economic Mobility Project are available in this section of pewtrusts.org or at http://www.economicmobility.org/.

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