The possibility that any American, through some combination of hard work and talent, can rise above the circumstances of his or her parents, is a central part of the American Dream.
Academics call this concept intergenerational mobility, or social mobility, and in recent years they’ve given it quite a lot of attention.
But in a new paper, economists at Northwestern, the University of Michigan, and the Census Bureau have determined that intergenerational mobility is 20% lower than previously thought.
The researchers looked at how the education levels of a person’s parents, grandparents and great-grandparents can predict their own education levels.
In other words: if your mother and father did not graduate from college, what are the odds that you did? And how does that answer change if your grandparents and great grandparents received degrees?
The results are not encouraging.
Catherine Massey is an assistant research scientist at the Population Studies Center, University of Michigan and one of the researchers who worked on the study. She told us that these results suggest inequality, which has been growing in recent years, may persist over many generations.
“There’s this belief that we accept a little bit of inequality with the idea that with hard work we can bring ourselves out of poverty,” she said. “But if that’s not really the case, then we need to examine policies that may enable a little bit more social mobility and reduce inequality.”
Listen to our full interview with Catherine Massey above.