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

Intergenerational Mobility for Women and Minorities in the United States
Melissa S. Kearney

Summary

Now that some of the historic barriers to economic success for U.S. women and minorities have begun to fall, women and blacks, in particular, are moving upward on the nation's socioeconomic ladder. Melissa Kearney reviews evidence that improved economic opportunities for these two groups make sex and race less important than they once were in determining economic status. But sex- and race-based differences in wages and income persist, and interactions between sex and class and between race and class continue to play a role in the intergenerational transmission of income status.

Kearney surveys studies and data showing that marriage remains important in determining women's economic status, even though marriage rates among women aged eighteen to thirty-four have been falling—from 73 percent in 1960 to 44 percent in 2000. Not only do spousal earnings continue to dominate family income for married women, but also women tend to marry men whose position in the income distribution resembles their fathers' position. Marriage thus facilitates the transmission of economic status from parents to daughters.

Racial wage gaps persist, says Kearney, largely because of differences in education, occupation, and skill. It also appears likely that the effects of discrimination, both current and past, continue to impede racial economic convergence. Kearney notes that the transmission of income class from parents to children among blacks differs noticeably from that among whites. Black parents and white parents pass their economic standing along to children at similar rates. But because mean income is lower among blacks than among whites, the likelihood of upward mobility in the overall income distribution is substantially lower among blacks. Black children are much more likely than white children to remain in the lower percentiles of the income distribution, and white children are more likely to remain in the upper reaches of the income distribution. Downward mobility from the top quartile to the bottom quartile is nearly four times as great for blacks as for whites.