Moving On Up? Maybe Not
The Brookings Institution has released an important new report about what it takes to get to, and stay in, the middle class in America:
“Children born into middle-income families have a roughly equal chance of moving up or down once they become adults, but those born into rich or poor families have a high probability of remaining rich or poor as adults. The chance that a child born into a family in the top income quintile will end up in one of the top three quintiles by the time they are in their forties is 82 percent, while the chance for a child born into a family in the bottom quintile is only 30 percent. In short, a rich child in the U.S. is more than twice as likely as a poor child to end up in the middle class or above.”
Why do some children do so much better than others? And what will it take to create more opportunity? The authors of the report present some findings that bear on the answers to these questions:
• The majority (61%) of Americans achieve the American
dream by reaching the middle class by middle age, but
there are large gaps by race, gender, and children’s
circumstances at birth.
• Success begets further success. Children who are
successful at each life stage from early childhood to
young adulthood are much more likely to achieve the
• Children from less advantaged families tend to fall
behind at every stage. They are less likely to be ready
for school at age 5 (59% vs 72%), to achieve core aca-
demic and social competencies at the end of elemen-
tary school (60% vs 77%), to graduate from high school
with decent grades and no involvement with crime or
teen pregnancy (41% vs 70%), and to graduate from
college or achieve the equivalent income in their twenties
(48% vs 70%).
• Racial gaps are large from the start and never narrow
significantly, especially for African Americans, who trail
by an average of 25 percentage points for the identified
• Girls travel through childhood doing better than boys
only to find their prospects diminished during the adult
• The proportion of children who successfully navigate
through adolescence is strikingly low: only 57%.
• For the small proportion of disadvantaged children who
do succeed throughout school and early adulthood
(17%), their chances of being middle class by middle
age are almost as great as for their more advantaged
peers (75% vs 83%).
• Keeping less advantaged children on track at each and
every life stage is the right strategy for building a stron-
ger middle class. Early interventions may prevent the
need for later ones. As the data provided in this paper
make abundantly clear, success is a cumulative process.
One-time interventions may not be enough to keep less
advantaged children on track.
• It’s never too late to intervene—people who succeed
in their twenties, despite earlier struggles, still have a
good chance of making it to the middle class.
The report, which you can read here, isn’t specifically about education, but it’s clear that one of the most important ways to boost children’s upward mobility is to make sure that they get a good education.