Tag: economic mobility

Misconceptions in Raj Chetty’s “Fading American Dream”

Raj Chetty, the head of Stanford’s “Equality of Opportunity” project, recently released a paper called “The Fading American Dream” co-authored with another economist, a sociologist, and three grad students. It claims that “rates of absolute mobility have fallen from approximately 90% for children born in 1940 to 50% for children born in the 1980s.” [Though the study ends with 2014, when most of those “born in the 1980s” were not yet 30.]

The title alone was sure to attract media excitement, particularly because the new study thanks New York Times columnist David Leonhardt “for posing the question that led to this research.” 

Leonhardt, in turn, gushed that Chetty’s research “is among the most eye-opening economics work in recent years.”  He explained that he asked Chetty to “create an index of the American dream” which “shows the percentage of children who earn more money… than their parent earned at the same age.”  The result, he concludes, is “very alarming. It’s a portrait of an economy that disappoints a huge number of people who have heard that they live in a country where life gets better, only to experience something quite different.”

“Another Chetty-bomb just exploded in the mobility debate,” declared a Brookings Institution memo: “Only half of Americans born in 1980 are economically better off than their parents. This compares to 90 percent of those born in 1940.”

At Vox.com,  Jim Tankersley proclaimed “The  American Dream [is] collapsing for young adults.”

“Sons born in 1984 are only 41 percent likely to earn more than their fathers, compared to 95 percent of sons born in 1940,” wrote USA Today reporter Nathan Bomey.  “If the American dream is defined as earning more money than your parents,” said Bomey, “today’s young adults are just as likely to have a nightmare as they are to achieve the dream.”

The Chetty study proved to be a politically irresistible story, since it appears to confirm a popular nostalgia for the good old days and belief that it has become more and more difficult to get ahead. But that is not what the study really shows.  What it really shows is:

First: Incomes were extremely low in 1940, so it was quite easy to do better 30 years later.

Second: Doing better than your parents is not defined by your income at age 30, but by income and wealth accumulated over a lifetime (including retirement).

Third: A rising percentage of young people remain in grad school at age 30, so their current income is lower than that of their parents at that age but their future income is likely to be much higher.

Income Mobility, Regressive Regulations, and Personal Choices

Americans often move between different income brackets over the course of their lives. As covered in an earlier blog post, over 50 percent of Americans find themselves among the top 10 percent of income-earners for at least one year during their working lives, and over 11 percent of Americans will be counted among the top 1 percent of income-earners for at least one year.   

Fortunately, a great deal of what explains this income mobility are choices that are largely within an individual’s control. While people tend to earn more in their “prime earning years” than in their youth or old age, other key factors that explain income differences are education level, marital status, and number of earners per household.  As HumanProgress.org Advisory Board member Mark Perry recently wrote

The good news is that the key demographic factors that explain differences in household income are not fixed over our lifetimes and are largely under our control (e.g. staying in school and graduating, getting and staying married, etc.), which means that individuals and households are not destined to remain in a single income quintile forever.  

According to the U.S. economist Thomas Sowell, whom Perry cites, “Most working Americans, who were initially in the bottom 20% of income-earners, rise out of that bottom 20%. More of them end up in the top 20% than remain in the bottom 20%.”  

While people move between income groups over their lifetime, many worry that income inequality between different income groups is increasing. The growing income inequality is real, but its causes are more complex than the demagogues make them out to be. 

Consider, for example, the effect of “power couples,” or people with high levels of education marrying one another and forming dual-earner households. In a free society, people can marry whoever they want, even if it does contribute to widening income disparities. 

Or consider the effects of regressive government regulations on exacerbating income inequality. These include barriers to entry that protect incumbent businesses and stifle competition. To name one extreme example, Louisiana recently required a government-issued license to become a florist. Lifting more of these regressive regulations would aid income mobility and help to reduce income inequality, while also furthering economic growth. 

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High Turnover Among America’s Rich

Your odds of “making it to the top” might be better than you think, although it’s tough to stay on top once you get there.

According to research from Cornell University, over 50 percent of Americans find themselves among the top 10 percent of income-earners for at least one year during their working lives. Over 11 percent of Americans will be counted among the top 1 percent of income-earners (i.e., people making at minimum $332,000 per annum) for at least one year.

How is this possible? Simple: the rate of turnover in these groups is extremely high.

Just how high? Some 94 percent of Americans who reach “top 1 percent” income status will enjoy it for only a single year. Approximately 99 percent will lose their “top 1 percent” status within a decade.

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Likely Sources of Obama’s Misconceptions about Income Mobility

President Obama has been expressing inordinate alarm about differences between income groups, and about mobility between such groups over time.   “The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility,” he says, “pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life, and what we stand for.”  

A fundamental limitation of annual income distribution figures is that income in any given year may not be at all typical of a family’s normal or lifetime income.  Job loss or illness can push one year’s income well below normal, for example, and asset sales can produce one-time windfalls. People are commonly much poorer when young than they are by middle age, after accumulating experience and savings. For such reasons, the President’s strong opinions about “decreasing mobility” could be important, if true.

We need to separate two concepts of mobility. One is intergenerational mobility – whether “a child born into poverty … may never be able to escape that poverty,” as the President put it. Another involves intertemporal mobility – whether starting with a low wage at your first job supposedly impedes moving up the ladder of opportunity.

The President’s opinion that intergenerational mobility has declined was rigorously debunked by Raj Chetty, Emmanuel Saez and others.  As for inequality and mobility being related, they also found that, “the top 1 percent share is uncorrelated with upward mobility [p. 40].” Moreover, “The fraction of children living in single-parent households is the strongest correlate of upward income mobility among all the variables we explored [p.45].”  Since other countries have fewer single-parent households, this is just one reason for being wary of facile international comparisons.

Intertemporal mobility is not about links between parents and children, but about the ease with which individuals move from a lower to a higher income group, and vice-versa.  Are we stuck with the same paycheck we had just after leaving school, or can we move up with effort, experience, learning and saving?  Did having a big gain in the stock market in 2007 ensure that would happen again in 2008-2009?

The Federal Reserve Board’s Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) tracks income mobility of the same families over time.  It turns out that mobility is surprisingly hectic even over short periods.