Changing of one’s social status, social mobility is an admirable transformation that most of the children aspire to attain in their lifetime. American children are no exception to this dream. Perhaps the story of Oprah Winfrey is a classical representation of this much desired social change. But the question remains: how many children in the US can move up the ladder of class? Americans are less mobile now than they used to be and less mobile compared to other developed nations. For the better part of the American history—from the middle of the nineteenth century into the second half of the twentieth—differences in opportunity based on family circumstances fell. The essay illuminates the possibility of social mobility in the United States within the class, race, gender and age contexts.
Carr and Wiemers carried out a study using Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation data (assesses the earnings of workers and their mobility in the period 1981-2008). Ranking workers earnings into deciles and measuring the possibility of workers climbing into the proceeding deciles though time, they established a vast disparity (Carr and Wiemers, n.d). The research found a higher probability of employees remaining in their first decile to have increased through time, while the likelihood of moving to a more upper decile decreased. The findings asserted that it became increasingly difficult for the middle-class workers to attain the first-class status in the US.
The history of race in the US has directly and principally shaped patterns of inequality. Although the educational and occupational gaps have reduced over time, they have stopped well short of ensuring equal outcomes or opportunities. This disparity is also reflected of wages, where the median for black workers has inched up slightly since 1979, but lost ground against white salaries (the median black income was almost 83 percent of white wages in 1979; it is under 77 percent today) (Carr and Wiemers, n.d).
Upward social mobility among the black Americans is relatively low as compared to the white Americans. Large proportions of the black Americans (more than half) are born in the low-class families and have lesser chances of climbing up the social ladder in adulthood as compared to the white children faced with similar conditions (a third) (Carr and Wiemers, n.d). Chetty observes that even though race is not the only factor that leads to reduced upward social mobility, it is evident that children with little opportunities in black locales are predominantly black.
African-Americans are also considerably disadvantaged in the labor market. Although the growth in incomes for both the black Americans and their white counterparts has been witnessed over the years, the disparity in these incomes remains between the two groups. And it is dramatically true of wealth, where the legacy of profound discrimination in housing continues to shape the accumulated assets, or net worth, of African-American families (Carr and Wiemers, n.d). The comparison of the household wealth between the black Americans and the white Americans reveal an increased gap. The average wealth of white Americans is approximated to be about twenty times the black Americans average wealth, proportion that seems to grow from generation to another.
The gender disparity in earnings is rooted in longstanding and multifaceted patterns of discrimination. For much of the last century, pervasive skepticism cast over the ability of women to perform affected their involvement in educational and occupational development (Chetty et al., p. 347).
For a long time, women’s income in the US was not recognized as family income. Women were for a long time regarded as under the providence of their father and husbands when they get married (Chetty et al., p. 348). And, for many of the similar reasons, the institutions and policies that helped to build and sustain earnings for men (the minimum wage, the labor movement), were less accessible to, or less likely to cover, women.
A skewed pattern in labor is still inherent in the US, and gender inequality remains stark. Women still bear the burdens and constraints of family life (caring for children, and elderly parents). Specifically, in the absence of meaningful child care supports or paid family leave, this comes at a direct cost to earnings and careers (Chetty et al., p. 350). Women constitute about half of the labor force—but much higher shares of minimum-wage, and low-wage workers.
A study by Chetty et al. 2017 on trends in mobility of incomes in the US revealed what they referred to as “the fading American dream.” Comparing the children’s household incomes at age thirty to that of their parents at the same age, with inflation accounted for, they established a fall in intergenerational absolute income mobility (Chetty et al., p. 334). The profoundly affected by the decrease are the children in the middle class.
In this respect, intergenerational mobility in the United States is downward. There exists a positive relationship between socio-emotional, educational and educational outcomes of a child with their parental education in the United States, than in any of the developed nations. This relative immobility both reflects background inequality, and sustains it: the more unequal the income distribution, the more likely it is that poor kids will inherit the disadvantages (and rich kids inherit the advantages) of their parents (Chetty et al., p. 353).
Not only is mobility constrained, but—in the absence of a range of social supports and programs standard in most other developed democracies—Americans also have far more insecure and volatile incomes. A child of modest background and means in the United States is less likely to surpass her or his parents, have lesser chances of climbing up the ladder in the labor market during their lifetime and have more chances of facing dramatic blows to family security and family income. In addition to inequality, income insecurity and volatility has increased markedly over the last generation: Americans are less protected by wages and benefits and more exposed to the business cycle.
Carr, Michael, and Emily E. Wiemers. “The decline in lifetime earnings mobility in the US: Evidence from survey-linked administrative data.” Washington Center for Equitable Growth (2016).
Chetty, Raj, et al. “The fading American dream: Trends in absolute income mobility since 1940.” Science 356.6336 (2017): 398-406.