Friday, December 11, 2009

How Much Do Americans Move Up and Down the Economic Ladder?

The incomes of American families change frequently. Some of the poor get richer, some of the rich get poorer, and for a variety of reasons: accumulation of job skills and experience, marriage and divorce, job change, addition or loss of a second paycheck, and business success or failure.
But despite this churning, overall rates of mobility in the United States have not changed over time. Thus, it is fair to conclude that increases in annual inequality have worsened the distribution of lifetime incomes. Although the disparity in economic rewards has increased, the availability of those rewards—the probability of success or failure—has remained unchanged.

There has been one notable development within this broader picture, however. The mobility of those with little education has declined. Increasingly, a college education is the ticket to upward mobility.

The question of how much inequality is acceptable or appropriate in the United States is an issue on which there is no agreement. Still, it is somewhat disturbing to learn that the seemingly relentless growth in the inequality of economic rewards has been unmitigated by any increase in access to those rewards, especially for those with the fewest skills.

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