Americans Aren’t So Optimistic About Economic Mobility

Source: James Devitt, Futurity, June 25, 2019

Americans overestimate the future income for children from wealthy and middle-income families, but underestimate that of children from poor ones, according to a new study.

Americans overestimate the intergenerational persistence in income ranks
Source: Siwei Cheng and Fangqi Wen, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), first published June 24, 2019
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Intergenerational mobility indicates the openness within a society. The question of how Americans think about socioeconomic mobility prospects is drawing growing attention from scholars and policy makers. Our study proposes a survey instrument that connects the empirical literature on patterns of mobility with the literature on the public perceptions of mobility. With large-scale, population-representative data, we show that Americans overestimate the intergenerational persistence in income ranks. That is, they tend to see greater inequality of economic prospects between children from rich and poor families. These results highlight the need for policy and political solutions that seriously engage with Americans’ concerns about the equality of opportunity in the society.

Recent research suggests that intergenerational income mobility has remained low and stable in America, but popular discourse routinely assumes that Americans are optimistic about mobility prospects in society. Examining these 2 seemingly contradictory observations requires a careful measurement of the public’s perceptions of mobility. Unlike most previous work that measures perceptions about mobility outcomes for the overall population or certain subgroups, we propose a survey instrument that emphasizes the variation in perceived mobility prospects for hypothetical children across parent income ranks. Based on this survey instrument, we derive the perceived relationship between the income ranks of parents and children, which can then be compared against the actual rank–rank relationship reported by empirical work based on tax data. We fielded this instrument in a general population survey experiment (n = 3,077). Our results suggest that Americans overestimate the intergenerational persistence in income ranks. They overestimate economic prospects for children from rich families and underestimate economic prospects for those from poor families.