White, college-educated couples without children were the most likely to stay at the top of the income ladder (29 percent). Add children, and it changes to 17 percent staying at the top — still high compared to other categories such as white, non-college-educated single women (1 percent) or black, college-educated couples with children (0 percent).
Power of education
"Economic mobility research has long shown the power of a college degree," says Diana Elliott, who manages Pew's research on economic mobility. "For example, 83 percent of black, college-educated single-mothers were upwardly mobile, compared with only 9 percent of their non-college educated counterparts. That is just one finding that shows the power of a college degree."
Harry Holzer, professor of public policy at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., says education has a large impact on how much money people make in America. "If a person comes from a lower-income family background it is harder to rise up ahead of your parents without an education level that is higher than theirs was."
"(This data) strengthens the policy argument that education is important," Holzer says. "But it especially says that we should do something not just about college attendance, but also about college completion."
Mark Edwards says a great predictor of the economic mobility of a particular region of the country is the number of youths who have dropped out of school and are unemployed. Edwards is the executive director of Opportunity Nation, a nonpartisan campaign to "rescue the American Dream."
"We know that in a free society, some inequality is unavoidable," he says. "People differ in skills and ambition. But inequality without the chance for mobility is economically inefficient and unjust. The circumstances of birth should not condemn anyone to an inescapable fate. When the American Dream is at risk for some, we all suffer."
A family enterprise
The study also found that marriage is a significant predictor of economic stability.
"The data in this tool really underscore that economic mobility is increasingly a family enterprise," Currier says. "We can see that at least half of white single men and women — regardless of education — fell down a rung on both the income and wealth ladders."
Without having a second earner in the household, single men and women were much less mobile, Currier says.
"Marriage is also pretty highly correlated with income in America," Holzer says. "But it is hard to know what is cause and what is effect. Young men, for example, start to get a lot more serious about earning money and having stable employment when they get married and especially when kids come along. On the other hand, it might be that the employment is causing the marriage — people with bad employment prospects make bad marriage partners. It is possible that the causation goes in both direction."
But either way, Holzer says the correlation between marriage and better income is not surprising.
"The people who are getting married today tend to be more educated," Holzer says. "Among less educated Americans, the marriage rates are declining, both because of increasing divorce rates and from people who were never married. It is a little frightening, but marriage is becoming an institution of the well-off."
To get a true picture of the ingredients that equal economic success or failure, Currier says you have to look at all factors and how they work together, from race to education to marriage.
"We often deal with these data in the aggregate — we look across the entire nation almost always," she says. "Sometimes it is a little bit more difficult for us to put a face behind what that mobility story means."
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