The Middle-Class Ceiling

Jim Tankersley fears that upward mobility is a thing of the past:

There is … growing—though still nascent—evidence that from one American generation to the next, mobility is declining. It’s getting harder, that is, to work your way into a higher income level than the one into which you were born. A son’s adult income in the United States is about half dictated by how much his father made, a percentage that is nearly as high as in any country in wealth-by-birthright Europe, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. In Europe, family connections and the circumstances of one’s birth are considered crucial determinants of success, a consequence of the entrenched aristocracies in the United Kingdom and, to a lesser extent, Italy and France.

This is far from the up-by-the-bootstraps, Horatio Algeresque self-image that most Americans hold dear. In the United States, immobility is a way of life, especially for the very rich and the very poor. Brookings Institution economist Isabel Sawhill estimates that 40 percent of children born into the topmost or bottom income quintile won’t budge as adults from where they began. Katharine Bradbury, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, agrees. “Most of the long-term poor are stuck at the bottom; most of the long-term rich have a strong grip on the top; and each of these two groups is somewhat more entrenched than the corresponding groups 20 years earlier,” she concluded in a research paper last spring.