Intergenerational Social Mobility: The United States in Comparative Perspective
Beller, Emily, Hout, Michael, The Future of Children
Emily Beller and Michael Hout examine trends in U.S. social mobility, especially as it relates to the degree to which a person's income or occupation depends on his or her parents' background and to the independent contribution of economic growth. They also compare U.S. social mobility with that in other countries. They conclude that slower economic growth since 1975 and the concentration of that growth among the wealthy have slowed the pace of U.S. social mobility.
In measuring mobility, economists tend to look at income and sociologists, occupation. The consensus among those measuring occupational mobility is that the average correlation between the occupations of fathers and sons today ranges from 0.30 to 0.40, meaning that most variation in the ranking of occupations is independent of social origins. Those measuring income mobility tend to agree that the elasticity between fathers' and sons' earnings in the United States today is about 0.4, meaning that 40 percent of the difference in incomes between families in the parents' generation also shows up in differences in incomes in the sons' generation.
Beller and Hout show that occupational mobility increased during the 1970s, compared with the 1940s-1960s, but there is some evidence to suggest that by the 1980s and 1990s it had declined to past levels. Existing data on income mobility show no clear trends over time, but increases in economic inequality during the 1980s made mobility more consequential by making economic differences between families persist for a longer time.
In international comparisons, the United States occupies a middle ground in occupational mobility but ranks lower in income mobility. Researchers have used the variation in mobility to study whether aspects of a country's policy regime, such as the educational or social welfare systems, might be driving these results. There is as yet, however, no scholarly consensus about the sources of cross-national differences in mobility.
Most Americans think it unfair when things they cannot control limit their chances to succeed in life. Particularly un-American is the notion that circumstances of birth set life on a course that may be hard to alter through one's own efforts. So, rags-to-riches stories are popular, and crowds cheer for the underdog. Academic research on social mobility goes beyond the stories and the drama to quantify the link between circumstances of birth and economic success, both for the population as a whole and for important and interesting groups within it. Sociologists and economists put numbers to patterns by comparing the social and economic success of Americans with an absolute standard that is completely free of traces of birth and with a relative standard that is based on recent experience or the current experience of other countries. On the absolute standard, Americans' occupations and incomes are tied much more closely to their parents' occupations and incomes than they would be in a world where circumstances of birth were irrelevant for adult success. (1) On the relative scale, ties between people's current occupations and incomes and those of their parents are about what they have been over the past twenty-five years, but substantially weaker than they were in the early 1960s. (2)
Social mobility from one generation to the next is the difference between a person's current income, wealth, or occupation and that of the family that raised her. (3) An opportunity structure promotes social mobility if it allows people to escape poverty while limiting the degree to which those who grow up in privileged homes get advantages throughout their lives. Growth promotes mobility, too, by raising everyone, regardless of background, above the level of that background. In this article we will focus most on the opportunity structure because scholars have written more about it. But it is important to keep in mind how important growth can be. Nearly everyone who grew up in the Great Depression experienced substantial upward mobility in adulthood. It was not that America was more equitable when the children of the Great Depression grew up than it was before or has been since; it was that the nation recovered from its economic collapse and therefore most people were much better off. Social mobility should not be confused with inequality, which refers to differences among people in wealth, income, and occupational status at any point in time. Social mobility would not matter in a society in which there was no inequality. Parents would have no advantages to bequeath to their children, and no one would care where they ended up. But when inequality is great, social mobility matters a lot. The advantages of rising to the top are large, and the consequences of remaining stuck at the bottom are much more serious.
Social mobility is high if the opportunity structure is open--that is, if the barriers and advantages associated with a person's background are few. But openness of that sort is not the only way to spur intergenerational mobility. Mobility is also high if growth is strong and widespread enough to make everyone better off. The opportunity structure, in the form of barriers and advantages, is symmetrical in the sense that in the absence of growth, removing a barrier that might block a person who starts low also implies removing an advantage from a person who starts high. Growth, on the other hand, can--in President John F. Kennedy's famous phrase--lift all boats. If growth is widespread, it creates new opportunities that can lift a person who starts low without knocking down a person who starts high. But slow growth reduces social mobility, as does a closed opportunity structure. (4)
Growing inequality does not necessarily increase or decrease the prevalence of social mobility, but it does increase the difference between the upwardly mobile and the downwardly mobile. When inequality increases, extreme incomes, occupations, and amounts of wealth (high and low) become more prevalent, and fewer people occupy the middle of the distribution. So an upwardly mobile person has farther to rise and a downwardly mobile person has farther to fall in a more unequal society. Also (and this is a little less intuitive) an increase in inequality over a person's lifetime increases the probability that someone who starts life in extreme privilege will stay there and (simultaneously) increases the probability that someone whose parents were poor will also be poor. Those increases in immobility are offset, though, by a decrease in the probability that someone whose parents were about average will end up near the average (because rising inequality eliminates positions near the average). The increased immobility at the extremes and mobility in the center do not imply a stronger or weaker correlation between circumstances of birth and adulthood; they follow from the definition of inequality--more extreme outcomes, fewer average ones.
It is possible to talk about social mobility in general terms, but most researchers focus on one of five specific forms of mobility: educational mobility, occupational mobility, wage mobility, family income mobility, and wealth mobility. Each has its own interesting properties. We focus on two types: family income mobility and occupational mobility. The first--typically the domain of economists--is the extent to which an adult's (or family's) relative income or rank in the income distribution is similar to his or her father's (or father's family's) relative income or rank. The second--most often the province of sociologists--is the extent to which the status or type of job a person winds up with resembles that of his or her father or mother.
We review research on income and occupational mobility, examining changes in the opportunity structure and growth, as well as the effects of inequality. We first try to quantify the extent of intergenerational occupational and income mobility in the United States. We then compare estimates of mobility in the United States today with evidence both from the American past and from cross-national comparisons. Where possible, we discuss the intergenerational persistence of wealth and property as well. Intergenerational educational mobility is another fascinating topic, but it is beyond our scope in this review.
Measuring Intergenerational Social Mobility
Important differences in the concepts of occupational and income mobility can help to explain how it is possible that mobility in one domain might be greater than mobility in another. People's incomes vary significantly even if their jobs share the same occupational category. Analyses of occupational mobility and analyses of income mobility provide different …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Intergenerational Social Mobility: The United States in Comparative Perspective. Contributors: Beller, Emily - Author, Hout, Michael - Author. Journal title: The Future of Children. Volume: 16. Issue: 2 Publication date: Fall 2006. Page number: 19+. © 2000 Princeton University-Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.