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Socioeconomic Mobility

Learn about how we measure socioeconomic mobility and why it’s important to understand the conditions that impact upward mobility.

Why the focus on social mobility?

Through much of American history, there was an expectation that one's life would provide opportunities that would provide a better quality of life than their parents. At its most simple, the American Dream is represented by these odds of advancement. This dream, however, hasn’t been the norm for at least a generation: many Americans have very low chances of the kind of upward mobility that defined progress for several decades.

What do we mean by socioeconomic mobility? At its simplest, the concept refers to the movement of individuals between one or more social or economic classes. These changes may occur - or may not occur - for any number of reasons that may stem for either social or economic conditions within society. There are two primary ways of measuring mobility, both of which capture a key structure:  absolute and relative mobility. While both are  Absolute mobility considers the degree to which adults in a society have higher incomes than their parents did at the same age (relatively, when adjusting for cost of living changes over time), while relative mobility instead looks to compare how the ranking of adults, compared to other adults of the same age, compares to the ranking of their parents against others of their parents ages.

At its simplest, relative mobility looks to measure if there are greater odds for moving between economic classes, while absolute mobility looks to determine if adults fare better than their parents regardless of if their position in society changes. This site is focused primarily on relative mobility.

So what do we know about socioeconomic mobility?

  • Absolute mobility has fallen. When the incomes of children to their parents incomes we see an alarming picture: children of each successive decade increasingly earn less than their parents.

  • Relative mobility is low: Americans are increasingly less likely to move upward in socioeconomic status as they enter their 30s. Even with incomes greater than their parents, overall income growth has been relatively slow and massively unequal: the share of income going to the highest income earners has limited mobility across socioeconomic groups.

  • Mobility isn’t felt equally, but declining levels of mobility impacts everyone including those who are college-educated. For those without a college education, the prospects for upward mobility are bleak.
  • Postsecondary education can help increase mobility for some, but it can also exacerbate the problem - people from lower income households are still less likely to experience upward mobility despite completing comparable degrees of education as more affluent peers.
  • Socioeconomic mobility is a function of demographic characteristics, income/wealth, geography, educational attainment, social capital, and individual level factors that arise out of one’s own behaviors and attitudes (though these are shaped by the other factors in some ways). Since we cannot measure the individual factors, we have to look at the other correlates to help get a picture for how likely a person in a specific geographic area is to experience upward mobility.

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Family stability helps ensure that our homes provide an environment to support mobility later in life. Learn the ways that families can help ensure long-term mobility isn’t out of reach.

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