Inequality & Mobility in America: In the U.S. we often celebrate the “American Dream”: the idea that everyone has the opportunity to move up the economic ladder. In fact, some people justify America’s relatively high level of class inequality by claiming that it’s the tradeoff for being the “land of opportunity.” However, the data shown in the slides and in the Lecture Notes suggest that American mobility rates aren’t that high; other countries have more mobility (and less inequality) than we do. In your post: Any surprises? (Did you expect that the US would be more equal or have more mobility than it does?) Are our levels of inequality and mobility a cause for concern? (Do you think they affect you personally? Do they have positive or negative consequences for society as a whole?) Should we try to increase our equality or mobility? If so, what might be some problems or costs?Intergenerational Social Mobility:
The United States in Comparative
Emily Beller and Michael Hout
Emily Beller and Michael Hout examine trends in U.S. social mobility, especially as it relates to
the degree to which a person’s income or occupation depends on his or her parents’ back-
ground and to the independent contribution of economic growth. They also compare U.S.
social mobility with that in other countries. They conclude that slower economic growth since
1975 and the concentration of that growth among the wealthy have slowed the pace of U.S.
In measuring mobility, economists tend to look at income and sociologists, occupation. The con-
sensus among those measuring occupational mobility is that the average correlation between the
occupations of fathers and sons today ranges from 0.30 to 0.40, meaning that most variation in
the ranking of occupations is independent of social origins. Those measuring income mobility
tend to agree that the elasticity between fathers’ and sons’ earnings in the United States today is
about 0.4, meaning that 40 percent of the difference in incomes between families in the parents’
generation also shows up in differences in incomes in the sons’ generation.
Beller and Hout show that occupational mobility increased during the 1970s, compared with
the 1940s–1960s, but there is some evidence to suggest that by the 1980s and 1990s it had de-
clined to past levels. Existing data on income mobility show no clear trends over time, but in-
creases in economic inequality during the 1980s made mobility more consequential by making
economic differences between families persist for a longer time.
In international comparisons, the United States occupies a middle ground in occupational
mobility but ranks lower in income mobility. Researchers have used the variation in mobility to
study whether aspects of a country’s policy regime, such as the educational or social welfare sys-
tems, might be driving these results. There is as yet, however, no scholarly consensus about the
sources of cross-national differences in mobility.
VOL. 16 / NO. 2 / FALL 2006
Emily Beller is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. Michael Hout is a professor of sociology and demog-
raphy at the University of California, Berkeley.