Upward mobility in the U.S. is a myth

October 8, 2012

Robert S. Strauss used to say that every politician wants you to believe he was born in a log cabin he built himself. Republicans in particular never tire of emphasizing the unparalleled opportunities that exist in US, where hard work and determination can propel anyone out of humble beginnings into the White House, or at least a mansion on a hill.

But is this really the case? A recent international study examined the relationship between wealth, heritage and inequality across generations. Here’s the abstract:

We study the role of parental wealth for children’s educational and occupational outcomes across three types of welfare states and outline a theoretical model that assumes parental wealth to impact offspring’s attainment through two mechanisms, wealth’s purchasing function and its insurance function. We argue that welfare states can limit the purchasing function of wealth, for instance by providing free education and generous social benefits, yet none of the welfare states examined here provides a functional equivalent to the insurance against adverse outcomes afforded by parental wealth. Our empirical evidence of substantial associations between parental wealth and children’s educational success and social mobility in three nations that are marked by large institutional differences is in line with this interpretation and helps us re-examine and extend existing typologies of mobility regimes.

Fabian Pfeffer, the main author of the study and organizer of the international conference on inequality across multiple generations summarizes his findings as follows:

Especially in the United States, people underestimate the extent to which your destiny is linked to your background. Research shows that it’s really a myth that the U.S. is a land of exceptional social mobility,

Wealth not only fulfills a purchasing function, allowing families to buy homes in good neighborhoods and send their children to costly schools and colleges, for example, but it also has an insurance function, offering a sort of private safety net that gives children a very different set of choices as they enter the adult world,

Despite the widespread belief that the U.S. provides exceptional opportunities for upward mobility, these data show that parental wealth has an important role in shielding offspring from downward mobility and sustaining their upward mobility in the U.S. no less than in countries like Germany and Sweden, where parental wealth also serves as a private safety net that not even the more generous European public programs and social services seem to provide.


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