Economic mobility refers to the ability of an individual or a family to improve their economic status, either within a lifetime or across generations. It is a reflection of economic opportunities available to parents and their children as they attempt to move up the income ladder. A new study by Pew Charitable Trusts defines upward mobility as the extent to which children can rise above their parents’ position relative to their peers. It concludes that 71 percent of individuals whose parents were in the bottom half of the income distribution improved their rankings relative to their parents. However, only 45 percent of them experienced improvements relative to their parents’ ranking that were significant. Further, only 38 percent of individuals who started in the bottom half of the distribution made their way to the top half as adults.
The differences in economic mobility across demographic groups are striking as well. Men have a greater likelihood to move up the income ladder (41 percent) than do women (27 percent). The increases in income experienced by women are less likely to place them 20 percentiles higher relative to their parents’ position, than for men. Finally, women at all income quintiles are much more likely to fall down to the bottom quintile than are men.
Amongst all races, economic mobility is of particular concern for African-Americans. African-Americans experience significantly less upward economic mobility compared to whites. Forty-four percent of blacks in the bottom quintile stay there into adulthood compared to just 25 percent of comparable whites. A large majority of blacks born in the bottom half of the income distribution are likely to exceed their parent’s place in the income distribution, but only 35 percent improve their relative position by 20 percentiles or more, less than the nearly 50 percent statistic for whites.
Economic mobility is highest for white men, followed by white women, black men and, last of all, black women. These findings are echoed in Hertz (2005) who finds that blacks are 30 percentage points more likely to remain in the bottom quarter of the income distribution relative to whites. A study by the Economic Mobility Project of the Brookings Institution also finds more downward mobility for blacks than for whites from the middle of the distribution.
Moreover, it appears from other studies that economic mobility in America on the whole is stagnating. Using tax record data for individuals born between 1971 and 1993, Chetty et al. (2014) conclude that, for the most part, intergenerational mobility has not changed significantly over time. For example, children born in 1971 who had parents in the bottom fifth of the income distribution had an 8.4 percent chance to reach the top fifth of the income distribution themselves, compared with a 9 percent chance for similar children born in 1986. Several studies have also found that mobility in the U.S. is significantly lower compared to other developed countries (e.g., Bjorklund and Jantti 1997, Jantti et al. 2006, Corak 2013).
From a policy perspective, understanding the causal mechanisms for upward economic mobility is extremely important. In this testimony, I highlight the factors that are highly correlated with economic mobility with a particular focus on how these factors apply to African-Americans. I then offer several policy suggestions that could address some of these challenges based on an extensive review of the literature on this topic.