Skip over navigation

Journal Issue: Opportunity in America Volume 16 Number 2 Fall 2006

Intergenerational Social Mobility: The United States in Comparative Perspective
Emily Beller Michael Hout

Consequences and Policy Discussion

The research literature—and by necessity our review of it—focuses on the way the economy affects mobility. To us, though, that leaves unexplored the most profound changes affecting families and their potential to promote or hinder their children's prospects: the way family structure itself affects both income and occupational mobility. Sophisticated mobility studies came of age in the era when most people grew up in a relatively stable family structure, anchored by the earnings of a paternal breadwinner. Tying the circumstances of birth to the income of the family breadwinner greatly simplifies the task of quantifying social mobility. And as long as that was an appropriate simplification, researchers made significant progress.

But changes in family structure since the 1970s have contributed to growing economic inequality. Two-earner families have significantly higher standards of living than single-parent families.49 At least part of the connection between parents' incomes and the success of their adult children is presumably due to the disrupting effects of family breakup. To be sure, researchers have considered family structure in important papers and books over the past forty years.50 But so far they have not been able to take fully into account what they know about family structure when they measure social origins. This gap in the research reduces our confidence in current estimates of social mobility. In particular, it appears that a father's absence from his family can reduce the correlation between his occupation and the success of his children. He is more able to pass on the advantages of his accomplishments if he lives with his family.51  Until this issue gets sorted out, it will be hard to say what family policy is most appropriate for promoting social mobility.

What we can say is that greater opportunity and increased growth promoted social mobility during the 1960s and 1970s. The importance of socioeconomic background for adult success declined during those decades, while economic growth further boosted all job seekers and earners. Research has tied the declining importance of socioeconomic background to better educational opportunities and equal opportunity legislation and its enforcement.52 Each seems to be a potential tool for leveling differences in the American opportunity structure. Institutions need to compensate for the ways that family differences lead to differences in achievement—a point made by James Coleman twenty years ago.53 Educational opportunity promotes social mobility not only by distributing human capital in many ways that are independent of social origins, but also by loosening the ties between occupational and income origins and destinations among college graduates.54 Establishing norms of fairness and enforcing them seems like a particularly sixties-style idealist solution. But establishing and enforcing those norms during the 1960s improved the life chances of disadvantaged people during the 1960s and 1970s and could, in principle, do so again.