Social mobility

Social mobility, or improving one’s social standing, is an admirable change that most children hope to accomplish in their lifetime. This dream extends to American children as well. Perhaps Oprah Winfrey’s story is a classic example of this much-desired social change. However, the question remains: how many children in the United States are willing to progress up the social ladder? Americans are now less mobile than before, and they are less mobile than many of their peers. Differences in opportunity based on family circumstances dropped for most American history, from the middle of the nineteenth century to the second half of the twentieth. The essay illuminates the possibility of social mobility in the US 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 great disparity (Carr, 2016). The research found a greater probability of employees remaining in their initial decile to have increased through time, while the probability of moving to a higher 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 fundamentally shaped patterns of inequality (Loury et al., 2005).  While educational and occupational gaps have narrowed over time, they have stopped well short of ensuring equal opportunities or equal outcomes. This is true of wages, where the median for black workers has inched up slightly since 1979, but lost ground against white wages (the median black wage was almost 83 percent of white wages in 1979; it is under 77 percent today) (Featherman et al., 1975).

Upward social mobility among the black Americans are 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) (Featherman et al., 1975). 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 still remains. And it is dramatically true of wealth, where the legacy of deep discrimination in housing continues to shape the accumulated assets, or net worth, of African-American families (Lin, 200). The comparison of the household wealth between the black Americans and the white Americans reveal increased gap. The average wealth of white Americans is approximated to be about twenty times the black Americans average wealth, proportion that seems to increase from generation to another.


The gender gap in earnings is rooted in longstanding and multifaceted patterns of discrimination. For much of the last century, pervasive doubts about the propriety of women’s place in the labor market sharply curtailed both occupational and educational opportunities (Lin, 200). When women did work, they labored in segregated occupational and professional niches: domestic work, textiles and apparel, light manufacturing, and the lower-wage “nurturing” professions (nursing and teaching).

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 (Lin, 200). And, for many of the same 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. The burdens and constraints of family life (caring for children, and elderly parents) are still borne largely by women. Especially in the absence of meaningful child care supports or paid family leave, this comes at a direct cost to earnings and careers (Lin, 200). Women make up about half of the labor force—but much higher shares of minimum-wage, and low-wage workers.

By any measure, women’s wages are persistently lower than those of men. This gap is narrowing, but it is narrowing slowly. Some of this is progress—women are better qualified (more education, more experience) and employment discrimination (glass ceilings, occupational bans) is less prevalent. But some of this reflects background trends in the wage structure, in which the gender gap is narrowed not by women’s gains, but by men’s losses (Loury et al., 2005).


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, 2017). The highly 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, 2017).


Not only is mobility constrained, but—in the absence of a range of social supports and programs common in most other developed democracies—Americans also have far more volatile and insecure incomes. A child of modest means and background in the United States is less likely to surpass her or his parents, less likely to move up the labor market during their lifetime, and more likely to face dramatic blows to family income and family security. Alongside 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, M., & Wiemers, E. E. (2016). The Decline in Lifetime Earnings Mobility in the US: Evidence from Survey-Linked Administrative Data. Mimeo.

Chetty, R., Grusky, D., Hell, M., Hendren, N., Manduca, R., & Narang, J. (2017). The fading American dream: Trends in absolute income mobility since 1940. Science, 356(6336), 398-406.

Featherman, D. L., Jones, F. L., & Hauser, R. M. (1975). Assumptions of social mobility research in the US: the case of occupational status. Social Science Research, 4(4), 329-360.

Lin, N. (2000). Inequality in social capital. Contemporary sociology, 29(6), 785-795.

Loury, G. C., Modood, T., & Teles, S. M. (Eds.). (2005). Ethnicity, social mobility, and public policy: Comparing the USA and UK. Cambridge University Press.

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