Getting Ahead: Economic and Social Mobility in America [Research Report]

Getting Ahead: Economic and Social Mobility in America [Research Report]

Reviews of new research at public agencies and private institutions

Read Time:
2m 7sec

"Getting Ahead: Economic and Social Mobility in America," Urban Institute Press, 2100 M St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20037. 100 pp. $49.50; paper, $18.95 Authors: Daniel P. McMurrer and Isabel V. Sawhill

Even as racial bias and other barriers to equal economic opportunity have fallen away in recent decades, an important part of the proverbial American Dream--which promises individuals that they will be able to live better than their parents did--has been receding from view for many Americans. So report McMurrer, a senior researcher at the American Society for Training and Development, in Alexandria, Virginia, and Sawhill, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, in Washington. The good news is that the economic and social status of one's parents, while still important, is now less of a determining factor in one's fortunes than it was in the past. Its importance diminished by one-third in less than a generation, according to one study. By 1988, the son of a blue-collar worker had a nearly 40 percent chance of reaching white-collar status. More meritocratic hiring practices, reduced self-employment, and increased access to higher education are responsible for the trend, the authors say. But stalled economic growth has almost offset the effects of increased intergenerational upward mobility, producing fewer good jobs and stagnant income growth rates for workers who fail to rise. Lagging productivity keeps their wages down. Though the college educated have seen their pay rise sharply, entrylevel wages for a male high school graduate working full-time were less than $16,000 in 1995--more than $6,000 (in constant dollars) lower than entry-level wages in 1973.

There is substantial movement up and down the economic ladder during people's working years, the authors note. Some move up as they acquire skills and experience or find better jobs; some move down because of a layoff, divorce, or business failure. If the population is segmented into fifths by income, an estimated 25 to 40 percent shift to a new quintile each year. The mobility rate has hardly changed in a quarter-century, but in recent years, college graduates have been more likely than others to be upwardly mobile.

The edge enjoyed by the college educated has become a major source of inequality, the authors maintain, and family background very strongly influences whether youths go to college, where they go, and whether they stay on to graduate. Although many employers now insist on a college degree, they often are really only looking for strong basic skills, the authors believe. The best available way to fight inequality, they argue, is to restore the value of a high school diploma.

More From This Issue