National Edition

Moving up: How marriage and education affect the face of economic mobility

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 18 2013 7:25 p.m. MDT

A new interactive Web feature by Pew's Economic Mobility Project shows the realities of economic mobility and the American Dream.

Pew's Economic Mobility Project

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Will children be better off financially than their parents?

This is a question of economic mobility — the heart of the American Dream.

A new interactive feature at Pew's Economic Mobility Project looks at the "Faces of Economic Mobility." What emerges from the data is a picture of how race, marriage, education and having children impact the ability of Americans to not just surpass their parents' income and wealth, but climb higher on the income ladder relative to other Americans.

The project looks at intergenerational economic mobility — comparing adult children to their parents. The study analyzes income and wealth between the generations by asking whether children are making more than their parents did at the same age (absolute mobility) and whether the children are doing better than their parents relative to other people in the country (relative mobility).

Absolute mobility may mean that everybody is doing better compared to previous generations — like everybody riding on an escalator. Relative mobility is more about where they are on that escalator compared to other Americans. The comparisons are then adjusted for inflation and family size.

"Americans can experience a good deal of upward absolute mobility (when compared to their parents)," says Erin Currier, director of the Economic Mobility Project, "without experiencing upward relative mobility. In other words, someone could surpass their parents' income but still be in the same place on the income ladder."

Climbing the income ladder

Currier says the interactive feature on the website, www.pewstates.org, was created to show how multiple factors affect mobility and play out in the lives of American families.

"We know that education and race and family structure each individually matter for mobility," Currier says, "but this interactive allows the user to see how they matter collectively across different family types."

The interactive tool allows users to select the race, education level, family type (married or single male or female) and if there are children in the household. The interactive then shows the economic mobility between the selected household and the previous generation.

Because this study follows the results of actual parents and their children (starting in the 1960s), it is ongoing — and some data isn't yet available or is in too small a sample size. This means that, among other things, the only two races available to compare are black and white. It also means that there are data gaps in some categories, such as "white, non-college-educated, single fathers" or "black, college-educated, single mothers."

That last category, "black, college-educated, single mothers," however, is the most upwardly mobile of all the groups delineated in the data, according to Currier. "All had higher incomes than their parents," she says, "and 83 percent moved up the income ladder."

Black, college-educated couples with children are also upwardly mobile. Sixty-two percent moved up the income ladder compared to their parents and 55 percent moved up the wealth ladder as well.

On the other end of the scale, non-college educated single mothers were the least likely to have greater income and wealth than their parents. Sixty-eight percent of white mothers in this situation were likely to be in a worse situation economically than their parents. Likewise, 25 percent of black mothers were worse off than their parents while 62 percent were already stuck in the bottom fifth and so could not drop levels.

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