Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

The Fading American Dream

A recently published study in Science Magazine by six scholars, “The fading American dream: Trends in absolute income mobility since 1940,” makes clear that the workings of the contemporary US economy have largely destroyed one of the core tenets of the so-called American dream–that children can expect to enjoy a higher standard of living than their parents.

In particular, the authors found that rates of “absolute income mobility”– the fraction of children who earn more than their parents—“have fallen from approximately 90 percent for children born in 1940 to 50 percent for children born in the 1980s.”

The study

The authors baseline study used data from the U.S. Census, Current Population Surveys, and tax records to determine the percentage of children with pretax measured earnings greater than those of their parents at a comparable age.  More specifically, “child income is measured at age 30 . . . as the sum of individual and spousal income, excluding immigrants after 1994. Parent income is measured . . . as the sum of the spouses’ incomes for families in which the highest earner is between ages 25 and 35.”

The following two figures show the results of their base line study.  Figure A shows the fraction of children earning more than their parents by parent income percentile for selected birth cohorts. Figure B shows the same for the average of all children in the given birth cohort.  Both charts make clear that the American dream is fading, and fading fast.

The authors summarize the results displayed in Figure A as follows:

In the 1940 birth cohort, nearly all children grew up to earn more than their parents, regardless of their parents’ income. Naturally, rates of absolute mobility were lower at the highest parent income levels, as children have less scope to do better than their parents if their parents had very high incomes.

Rates of absolute mobility have fallen substantially since 1940, especially for families in the middle and upper class. At the 10th percentile of the parent income distribution, children born in 1940 had a 94% chance of earning more than their parents, compared with 70% for children born in 1980. At the 50th percentile, rates of absolute mobility fell from 93% for children born in 1940 to 45% for those born in 1980. And at the 90th percentile, rates of absolute mobility fell from 88% to 33% over the same period.

As for Figure B:

Absolute mobility declined starkly across birth cohorts: On average, 92% of children born in 1940 grew up to earn more than their parents. In contrast, only 50% of children born in 1984 grew up to earn more than their parents. The downward trend in absolute mobility was especially sharp between the 1940 and 1964 cohorts. The decline paused for children born in the late 1960s and early 1970s, whose incomes at age 30 were measured in the midst of the economic boom of the late 1990s. Absolute mobility then continued to fall steadily in the remaining birth cohorts.

The following two figures show how trends in absolute mobility vary by state.  Figure A shows absolute mobility by birth cohort for four states while Figure B does the same for all states.  As the authors explain:

Absolute mobility fell substantially in all 50 states between the 1940 and 1980 birth cohorts. Absolute mobility fell particularly sharply in the industrial Midwest, where rates of absolute mobility fell by 48 percentage points in Michigan and about 45 percentage points in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio. The smallest declines occurred in states such as Massachusetts, New York, and Montana, where absolute mobility fell by about 35 percentage points.

The authors tested the robustness of their results by changing some of their baseline assumptions.

  • They redid their analysis using net income after taxes and transfers, rather than pretax earnings. They then adjusted the income variable to account for the growing use of fringe benefits.


  • They also reran their study with new target ages, measuring child income at 40 and parent income at ages 35 to 45, in recognition that social changes may have lengthened the time before children reached their peak earnings years.


  • They also tested to see if their results were sensitive to changes in marriage patterns and family size. And finally, they also carried out their study using individual rather than household earnings, looking at sons and fathers and then daughters and fathers.


None of these adjustments changed their conclusion that absolute mobility has fallen substantially since 1940.


The authors examined two different explanations for the dramatic decline in absolute mobility since 1940: slowing rates of economic growth and increasing income inequality.

They tested these explanations using two counterfactual scenarios.  In the first, they asked what would have happened to absolute mobility for the 1980 birth cohort if the rate of growth was faster, similar to what it had been in the mid-20th century.   In the second, they asked what would have happened to absolute mobility for the same birth cohort if the rate of growth remained unchanged but income was distributed more equitably, as it was for the 1940 birth cohort.

Here is what they found:

Under the higher-growth counterfactual, the mean rate of absolute mobility [for the 1980 birth cohort] is 62%. This rate is 12 percentage points higher than the empirically observed value of 50% in 1980, but closes only 29% of the decline relative to the 92% rate of absolute mobility in the 1940 cohort. The increase in absolute mobility is especially modest, given the magnitude of the change in the aggregate economy: A growth rate of 2.5% per working-age family from 1980 to 2010 would have led to GDP of $20 trillion in 2010, $5 trillion (35%) higher than the actual level.

The more broadly shared growth scenario increases the average rate of absolute mobility to 80%, closing 71% of the gap in absolute mobility between the 1940 and 1980 cohorts.

In other words, most of the decline in absolute mobility is due to the rise in inequality, not the slowdown in growth.  Thus, efforts to speed up growth are unlikely to do much to reverse current trends.  As the authors say:

With the current distribution of income, higher GDP growth rates alone are insufficient to restore absolute mobility to the levels experienced by children in the 1940s and 1950s. If one wants to revive the “American dream” of high rates of absolute mobility, then one must have an interest in growth that is spread more broadly across the income distribution.

Unfortunately, left unexamined are the causes of this growth in inequality.  And this takes us to the workings of the contemporary US economy and more importantly, the core strategies embraced by corporations in their pursuit of profit: globalization, financialization, privatization, the gutting of social programs, the destruction of unions, and the restructuring of work.  Said differently, the enormous growth in inequality over the last decades is the result of policies, many of them promoted by government, that were designed to boost the power and profits of a small group of people. Thus, “spreading growth more broadly across the income distribution” is going to require nothing less than the creation of a powerful social movement willing and able to challenge and change those policies.


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