Pursuing the American Dream: Economic Mobility Across Generations

The ideal that all Americans have equality of opportunity regardless of their economic status at birth is the crux of the American Dream and a defining element of our national psyche. This study investigates the health and status of that dream by analyzing economic mobility— Americans’ movement up and down the economic ladder—during the past generation. Pursuing the American Dream: Economic Mobility Across Generations is an update to the Economic Mobility Project’s (EMP) foundational work, Getting Ahead or Losing Ground: Economic Mobility in America, originally released in 2008.

This chart book moves the project’s work forward in two ways. First, the income mobility estimates have been adjusted for family size to account for shifts in family demographics across generations. Second, the analyses now include mobility estimates of personal earnings and family wealth in addition to family income. Using Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) data through 2009, the study provides the most current estimates of mobility and the first estimates that overlap with the recession.

Pursuing the American Dream looks closely at the mobility experiences of Americans on different rungs of the economic ladder, divided into five equal parts or quintiles. The study measures mobility in two ways. Absolute mobility measures whether a person has more or less income, earnings, or wealth than his or her parents did at the same age. Relative mobility measures a person’s rank on the income, earnings, or wealth ladder compared to his or her parents’ rank at the same age.

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