Category Archives: social mobility

Good places for kids’ social mobility

Scholars Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hedren, Patrick Kline and Emmanuel Saez (from Harvard and Berkeley) have garnered richly deserved  attention for their interesting retrospective look at which places were the best in America for low-income kids to be born in 1980 and 1981 to assure the highest rates of youth mobility.  [Amazingly, to do this, they were able to examine tax returns of all Americans and connect the youth with where they had grown up.]

Map of historic youth mobility in US

[To explore the above map where blue areas are areas of highest mobility and red areas are areas of lowest mobility, visit the New York Times site.]

Their work rhymes with two pieces of research that we have done.

First, they find that the places that promoted the greatest level of mobility were  places high in social capital.  [For an image of social capital by state in the US c. 2000 see here.] This is less surprising, since other scholars have found that places with high social capital were among the places historically to invest in public high schools (e.g., Larry Katz and Claudia Goldin’s work on the birth of American public high school movement in the American heartland).  Moreover, recent research by our research team, highlighted in Robert Putnam’s “Crumbling American Dreams” shows the changes in levels of community solidarity and togetherness, exemplified by the changes in his home town of Port Clinton, OH.

Second, they find that places with greater percentages of minorities were also places that afforded less social mobility for young people.  This resonates with work of Ed Glaeser and Alberto Alesina on how it is harder to foster public investments in places of greater diversity (in the US and Europe) and work that we did in “E Pluribus Unum” that also discusses the short-term challenges of increased diversity.

While their work is retrospective, we are actively involved in gathering data on social mobility for youth from the bottom third of American households (in income and education) that strongly suggests that whether levels of mobility that existed for lower-third youth in the past, future rates of mobility are likely to much lower.  Stay tuned for our evidence of this coming crisis and what we might do about it.

Great NYT Op-Ed on stalling youth opportunity by Jen Silva (UPDATED 7/2013)



One of our post-doctoral researchers, Jen Silva, has a very interesting op-Ed in Sunday’s New York Times that comes out of her research talking to young people in Lowell, MA and Richmond, VA about the challenges for working-class youth today.


In a working-class neighborhood in Lowell, Mass., in early 2009, I sat across the table from Diana, then 24, in the kitchen of her mother’€™s house. Diana had planned to graduate from college, marry, buy a home in the suburbs and have kids, a dog and a cat by the time she was 30. But she had recently dropped out of a nearby private university after two years of study and with nearly $80,000 in student loans. Now she worked at Dunkin’€™ Donuts.

‘€œWith college,’€ she explained, ‘€œI would have had to wait five years to get a degree, and once I get that, who knows if I will be working and if I would find something I wanted to do. I don’€™t want to be a cop or anything. I don’€™t know what to do with it. My manager says some people are born to make coffee, and I guess I was born to make coffee.’€

Young working-class men and women like Diana are trying to figure out what it means to be an adult in a world of disappearing jobs, soaring education costs and shrinking social support networks. Today, only 20 percent of men and women between 18 and 29 are married. They live at home longer, spend more years in college, change jobs more frequently and start families later.

For more affluent young adults, this may look a lot like freedom. But for the hundred-some working-class 20- and 30-somethings I interviewed between 2008 and 2010 in Lowell and Richmond, Va., at gas stations, fast-food chains, community colleges and temp agencies, the view is very different.

Lowell and Richmond embody many of the structural forces, like deindustrialization and declining blue-collar jobs, that frame working-class young people’€™s attempts to come of age in America today. The economic hardships of these men and women, both white and black, have been well documented. But often overlooked are what the sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb in 1972 called their ‘€œhidden injuries’€ -€” the difficult-to-measure social costs borne by working-class youths as they struggle to forge stable and meaningful adult lives.

The stories of young people growing up today from different walks of life will figure prominent in our forthcoming book on the growing youth opportunity gap in the US.

For those anxious to get their fix now of these stories, read Jen Silva’s book, “Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty(Oxford University Press, 2013).

See also Jen’s piece in Salon re decline of working-class marriages with interesting snippets from her interviews.

State of economy for less-educated young people compounds growing Opportunity Gap

Pell City 2007 HS graduation; Flick/kwsanders

Pell City 2007 HS graduation; Flick/kwsanders

While parts of the economy have rebounded since the Great Recession of 2008, the effects have been much worse for the poor, and especially the less-educated young Americans, and those not fortunate enough to graduate from college.

Since 2008, the housing market has started to bounce back.

The stock market, for those fortunate enough to have net savings rather than a negative net worth has more than recovered its recessionary losses (pictured is the S&P500 index).

Recovery in S&P500 since 2009 recession

The economy has created 6.15 million jobs from March 2010 through April 2013 (based on provisional numbers for March/April 2013), enough to lower unemployment but only through many people giving up on finding jobs.  The  percentage of Americans employed in the population hasn’t budged over the last 3.5 years and remains fixed at between 58% and 59%. Larry Summers thinks that the numbers of long-term unemployed is the biggest problem facing this country and is at historically unprecedented in the period since the Great Recession of the 1920s and 1930s.

Put this together with the data that David Leonardt released (“The Idled Young Americans“) showing that the impact has disproportionately fallen on young folks.  Moreover, levels of employment among 16-24 year olds, even as recent as May 2013 remain stubbornly at 45%, at levels not seen in the US since the early 1960s.

Our own research on the fact that children born to less educated families are facing a growing opportunity gap.  American young adults from the bottom socioeconomic quarter are graduating from high school or dropping out with less of the hard academic skills or soft non-cognitive skills necessary for life success.  [We find significantly growing gaps between children from the top third or quarter of socioeconomic families and the bottom third or quarter on measures as diverse as involvement in extra-curriculars, involvement in sports, K-12 test scores, obesity, social trust, involvement with religion, social connectedness, volunteering, college attendance, and college completion.]

And the intersection of these two trends — consequences of the current lackluster economy being borne by the young adults and the growing opportunity gap — means that these gaps are borne disproportionately by less educated young adults.

For example, if one looks at employment to population ratios for 25-34 year olds in 2012, it was only 69.8% for those with a high-school degree (but no college), whereas it was 84.4% for those with 4-year college degrees or more.  Another way of putting this is that only 16% of college-educated 25-34 year olds were out of the labor market versus 30% of those with only a high school degree.

And if that were not enough, there is growing body of literature suggesting that experiences of unemployment or involuntarily being terminated from jobs create long-term scarring effects both on the lifetime earnings of these young people, but also their civic and social connectedness throughout their lives.  [See for example Davis/von Wachter or Gregg/Tominey or Brand/Burgard.]

[There is also unpublished data on this scarring effect in: Laurence, James, and Chaeyoon Lim. “The Long-Term and Deepening Scars of Job  Displacement on Civic Participation over the Life-course: A Cross-National Comparative  Study between the UK and the US.”]

We are brewing a recipe for long-term adverse consequences for these young Americans, especially the less educated ones, and our government ought to be POUND-wise, even if it is “PENNY-foolish” in the eyes of others and invest in jobs for these young 16-25 year olds to avoid the much longer long-term adverse effects.

White achievement gap by class exceeds black-white gap

White class gap in math test scores as great now as black-white gap in the racial backwater prior to Brown vs. Board of Ed.

The New York Times had a powerful and alarming story today “Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Show“.

One thing that the story didn’t point out is that the class gaps even just within non-Hispanic whites are growing and this also exceeds the black-white test score gap.  I’ve appended a chart showing the within whites 90/10 math scores over time [comparing the math scores of a white child in a family earning $160,000 to the math scores over time of a white child in a family earning $17,500 in 2008].  [This is from an Appendix to Sean Reardon’s paper, Figure 5.A2.]

The first graph shows that by 2000, the within white class gap (90/10) ratio has now risen to almost 1.25. It started rising with the birth cohort born around 1972, or in other words high school seniors around 1990.  This white class gap has risen about 65% from 0.75 in the early 1970s to almost 1.25 by 2000.   Reardon notes that 1.0 on this scale is about the difference in math between a 5th grader and an 8th grader.  So the white class gap is probably nearing the difference between an average 5th grader and a 9th grader.  [Interestingly, the white class gaps for math are greater than the class gaps within Blacks or Hispanics, probably because the wealth gap between the 90th and 10th percentiles for whites are wider than the similar wealth gap among Hispanics or Blacks.]

The second graph solid line shows whites and non-whites together but the dotted line on the second chart (the black-white racial gap) has been almost halved over the last 60 years from about 1.2, dropping to around 0.65 by 2000 (about the difference between a 5th grader and a 7th grader).

So even if you take race completely out of the equation, the class gap in math (and reading scores) within whites is almost DOUBLE the racial gap along these same measures and upper class whites are about 2 grade levels ahead compared to the black-white gap.  And the within white class gap in math test scores is about as great as the black-white test score gap in math was in the racial backwater leading up to Brown vs. Board of Education when the Supreme Court recognized that racially separate schools were inherently unequal.

The conclusion is that our focus on racial inequality in education has been important in halving these differences, but in an era of deindustrialization of America and the decline of good-paying high-school education jobs, we need to be paying as great attention to class gaps in math and English achievement if we hope to have vibrant social mobility in the decades ahead for the white working and lower middle class.

See somewhat related strong Op-Ed by Nick Kristof “The White Underclass” (2/9/12) (acknowledging some of the social truth of the cultural and family collapse of the white working class as Charles Murray’s Coming Apart does, while also identifying the much larger structural changes taking place as well which Murray does not).

See earlier blog post on social mobility in America.

Stalled upward social mobility in America [UPDATED 2/14/12]

Flickr photo by AtleBrunvoll

Rana Foroohar’s cover story in TIME (Nov. 2011) is entitled What Ever Happened to Upward Mobility? Her answer is that it has stalled in the US and fallen behind rates of upward mobility in the US, Sweden or Denmark.  According to Foroohar (and based on a Pew study), a male born in the 1970s into the bottom fifth of the wealth distribution had only a 17% chance of making it to the top wealth quintile.  And while 50% of young males in this low-wealth quintile remained stuck there in the US, it was only 30% in UK or 25% in Denmark and Sweden, so upward mobility was much higher in those nations.  [Swedish economist Markus Jantti led the research project that uncovered these numbers.]

Foroohar (after consulting experts from places like Goldman Sachs) says that China and other emerging countries are driving inequality by taking away good middle class US jobs.   Foroohar believes that the answer lies in more progressive tax rates (with fewer loopholes) and greater investments in public education (which is the engine of economic mobility).

Fareed Zakaria also has three pieces on this: “The Downward Path of Upward Mobility” (Wash. Post op-ed, 11/10/11), a CNN video entitled “Fix Education, Restore Social Mobility” (about how lack of investment in education causing stagnating upward mobility is at heart of Occupy Wall Street movement), and “When will we learn” (TIME, 11/14/11).

Bhaskar Mazumder, of the Chicago Fed, highlights research that he believes shows a decrease in US social mobility from 1980-1990 and then growing less rapidly from 1990-2000 (based on studies of brothers). Mazumder notes that mobility measures are by methodological approach “backward-looking” since they impose a several decade lag before one learns of corrosive influences in society for social mobility; he  notes  that “the gap in children’s academic performance between high- and low-income families has widened significantly over the last few decades. If this trend persists, it would point to reduced intergenerational economic mobility going forward.”

We have been doing work on the connection between income inequality and social inequality among youth (that exacerbates the test score gaps) and will report on that later, but suffice it say that we find a connection between the “blue inequality” (income inequality) and “red inequality” (the ability of college graduates to pass on advantages from a generation to another) that David Brooks writes about.

In November 2011, a variety of non-profit, corporate, academic and media leaders convened to discuss social mobility in the Opportunity Nation summit.  Opportunity Nation has released an Opportunity Index that enables you look state by state or county by county to see how that locality is doing in terms of economic opportunity. And you can see videos of some of the speakers here.  Rick Warren cited an eye-opening statistic: 25% of Anglo kids, 50% of Hispanic kids, & 75% of black kids are growing up today without a stable father in the home (these are out of wedlock births).  This work is picked up in Charles Murray’s Coming Apart and in Nick Kristoff’s “The White Underclass“.

And interestingly, even conservative media venues like the National Review and the FrumForum (here and here) are discussing the decline of social mobility as noted in “Harder for Americans to Rise From Lower Rungs“, citing Republican experts like John Bridgeland.  Even Presidential candidate Rick Santorum has admitted that social mobility up into the middle class is higher in Europe than in the US. Excerpt from Scott Winship’s piece in the National Review here:

The Economic Mobility Project/Brookings analyses break the parent and child generations into fifths on the basis of each generation’s income distribution. If being raised in the bottom fifth were not a disadvantage and socioeconomic outcomes were random, we would expect to see 20 percent of Americans who started in the bottom fifth remain there as adults, while 20 percent would end up in each of the other fifths. Instead, about 40 percent are unable to escape the bottom fifth. This trend holds true for other measures of mobility: About 40 percent of men will end up in low-skill work if their fathers had similar jobs, and about 40 percent will end up in the bottom fifth of family wealth (as opposed to income) if that’s where their parents were.

Is 40 percent a good or a bad number? On first reflection, it may seem impressive that 60 percent of those starting out in the bottom make it out. But most of them do not make it far out. Only a third make it to the top three fifths. Whether this is a level of upward mobility with which we should be satisfied is a question usefully approached by way of the following thought experiment: If you’re reading this essay, chances are pretty good that your household income puts you in one of the top two fifths, or that you can expect to be there at age 40. (We’re talking about roughly $90,000 for an entire household.) How would you feel about your child’s having only a 17 percent chance of achieving the equivalent status as an adult? That’s how many kids with parents in the bottom fifth around 1970 made it to the top two-fifths by the early 2000s. In fact, if the last generation is any guide, your child growing up in the top two-fifths today will have a 60 percent chance of being in the top two fifths as an adult. That’s the impact of picking the right parents — increasing the chances of ending up middle- to upper-middle class by a factor of three or four.

See somewhat related Social Capital blog piece on increased residential income segregation.

Read Paul Krugman’s excellent “We are the 99.9%” (NYT, 11/24/11)

Read Nick Kristof’s excellent piece “Occupy the Agenda” (NY Times, 11/19/11)

Listen to Steven Haider (Michigan State Univ. economist) on Michigan Public Radio (11/18/11) discussing the myth of upward mobility in America.

Other pieces on this topic:

TIME Magazine: “The Land of Opportunity” by Richard Stengel, 11/14/11

Washington Post-ABC News Poll:   [see questions 16-18]

December 2011 OECD report Divided We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising on how inequality among OECD countries is at a record high over the past 30 years and demands action.

The reports that Zakaria uses to show that mobility is lower in US than in Europe are:
– OECD 2010 report:
– German Institute for the Study of Labor report (2006):

– Professor Miles Corak (economist at Univ. of Ottawa) compared rates of mobility in a review of over 50 studies spanning nine countries.

– See Scott Winship’s testimony to Senate Budget Committee (Feb. 9, 2012) on inequality and social mobility, and see Jared Bernstein’s and Heather Boushey’s as well.

Two of most startling charts of testimony were one by CBO showing how the income of the top 1% is the one cohort that has done well over the last 40 years in the US economy:

And one showing that, unlike in most countries where progressive taxation is used to curb the excessive inequalities of the market and ease the distribution somewhat, the tax and transfer system in the US actually make inequality WORSE.