Getting Ahead or Losing Ground

Economic Mobility in America


The Economic Mobility of Families Across Generations

"Doing better" than one's parents has long been a key element of the American Dream. The story embedded in our history suggests any person can start from humble beginnings and achieve great wealth or at least reach the middle class. But are Americans today better off than their own parents were? How much does their eventual success depend on their family background?

The report takes a comprehensive view of economic mobility and the American Dream, asking questions about both absolute and relative mobility. The first key question is, "To what extent do American families improve their incomes over a generation?" Each generation should have higher income than the last, assuming economic growth, so the issue here is the amount of growth and how it is distributed across society. A less frequently asked question is "How often do individual Americans end up with higher family incomes than their own parents, either because economic growth has boosted their income or because that individual has moved up or down the economic ladder?" A third question ignores the overall increases due to economic growth and focuses exclusively on relative mobility: "To what extent does where one ends up in the income distribution depend on where one began?" Put differently, are the economic fortunes of children tied to that of their parents or is there a lot of movement up and down the economic ladder from one generation to the next?

Supporting Assets

Figure 1: Change in Income Distribution from Parents' Generation to Children's Generation
Figure 2: Percent of Children with Family Income above their Parents, by Parents' Income Ranking
Figure 3: Change in Median Family Income from Parents' to Children's Generation
Figure 4: Children's Chances of Getting Ahead or Falling Behind, by Parents' Family Income
Notes: Family Income Comparisons

Download the complete Economic Mobility of Families Across Generations Report here.

Download the complete Economic Mobility of Families Across Generations Executive Summary here.