Now, new research suggests that social mobility in America may be even more limited than researchers have realized. In a new paper, Joseph Ferrie of Northwestern University, Catherine Massey of the University of Michigan and Jonathan Rothbaum of the U.S. Census Bureau draw on a newly constructed dataset about American families reaching back to 1910. Unlike past studies, which have mainly compared parents and children, the new work adds data on grandparents and great-grandparents to show just how fixed the fortunes of many Americans have become.
In the past, researchers have overestimated the amount of social mobility in American society because they had a limited amount of data to study, Ferrie and his colleagues argue. Much scholarly work has been done examining how inequality has persisted between parents and children since the 1960s and beyond, but researchers have lacked data on previous generations.
That limited historical insight is a problem, says Ferrie, because families can see one-generation fluctuations in education and income. For example, suppose you have a banker whose son decided to become a poet, surrendering a huge income in favor of a more fulfilling career. But the poet’s daughter decides to go back to the family business and become a banker.
If you just looked at the poet and his daughter, you might think that economic mobility is alive and well in America -- she probably makes a lot more money than her father does. But actually, the daughter might be drawing on much older, preexisting family resources – such as financial resources, personal connections, or knowledge about how Wall Street works from her grandfather – that make it easier for her to become a banker than it is for the average kid.