Moving On Up

Why Do Some Americans Leave the Bottom of the Economic Ladder, but Not Others?

Moving On Up
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Most Americans raised at the bottom of the income ladder never reach the middle rung. This report, “Moving On Up,” examines the traits of those who are able to move up from their starting place at the bottom of the income ladder to the second rung, or even to the middle of the income distribution.



One of the hallmarks of the American Dream is equal opportunity: the belief that anyone who works hard and plays by the rules can achieve economic success. Polling by The Pew Charitable Trusts finds that 40 percent of Americans consider it common for a person in the United States to start poor, work hard, and become rich.

But that rags-to-riches story is more prevalent in Hollywood than in reality. In fact, 43 percent of Americans raised at the bottom of the income ladder remain stuck there as adults, and 70 percent never make it to the middle.

What is the difference between those who move up from the bottom and those who don’t?  This brief reviews the key findings of this research to understand how various factors play a role in upward mobility. 

This research reveals:

  • College graduates were over 5 times more likely to leave the bottom rung than non-college graduates.
  • Dual-earner families were over 3 times more likely to leave the bottom rung than single-earner families.
  • Whites were 2 times more likely to leave the bottom rung than blacks.

Additionally, Pew’s analysis examined the intersection between income and wealth, and found that the health of family balance sheets—including accumulated savings and wealth—are related to income mobility prospects. Households with financial capital, such as liquid savings or other readily available assets such as stocks, were more likely to leave the bottom of the economic ladder. In other words, movement up the income and wealth ladders was connected, and economically secure families were also the most likely to be upwardly mobile.

Moving On Up

Report Assets

November 7, 2013
Andrea Risotto | 202.540.6510
Economic Mobility Project
Economic Mobility