More than 40 years have passed since the last large-scale survey of social mobility in the United States. Much has changed since then. Demographics, social institutions, economic contexts, and political priorities have shifted considerably, even as research methods and resources have also changed. The prospect of a new study of social mobility merits careful consideration of design, measures, methods, sources, and objectives.
Michael Hout of the University of California, Berkeley, offered an initial framing of the relevant issues in his presentation, “Social Mobility: What We Know So Far.” Hout juxtaposed a popular, conventional, but often misleading understanding of social mobility with a more precise definition of the key elements of this phenomenon. He then explored some further aspects of the process.
Defining Social Mobility
Hout characterized popular notions of social mobility by quoting a lyric from a 1980s song by the popular singer Billy Joel: “Each child had a pretty good shot/to get at least as much as their old man got.” While a comparison is made with the “old man,” the lyric puts the focus on the individual, on discrete opportunities and achievements rather than con-
tinuity and connections with the previous generation and also suggests that mobility is always upward. As Hout observed, that understanding of social mobility was “cultural trope enough that it made the Top Ten in 1980.” This conventional perspective, however, is misleading for looking at actual trends in social mobility. This way of understanding social mobility invites confusion and indeed, according to Hout, presents “the wrong object to study.”
By contrast, Hout defined social mobility as “the degree to which success in life is contingent on circumstances of birth and upbringing, or the persistence of advantage across generations.” Social origins may privilege and propel or constrain and diminish the destination position of an individual. The continuity and transmission of socioeconomic stratification across generations is the correct object to study. This encompasses both the patterns and strength of the association between the socioeconomic standing of an individual’s family of origin and of that same individual as an adult.
In exploring the implications of this framing for the study of social mobility, Hout chose a few points for emphasis. First, he noted, it shifts the relevant question away from “who moves up and who moves down?” Rather than tracking the changing status of individuals, the effort is to track the transmission of status and the transfer of resources from one generation to the next. According to Hout, this leads to “a quantitative question regarding the degree to which success in life depends on the circumstances of birth and recasts parents’ attributes as attributes of the research subject.”
In a further point of emphasis, Hout underscored that not all mobility is upward. In the popular imagination, Hout noted, mobility tends to be equated with progress; however, “no mobility table ever had an empty triangle showing no downward mobility.” As Hout pointed out, “Mobility is symmetrical in the absence of growth and immigration.” Instances of downward mobility, he explained, “actually offset upward moves unless there has been substantial growth and/or immigration into the population,” so long as each origin category is the same size as each destination category.
Many Dimensions of Intergenerational Transmission
Hout examined a few other misleading aspects of the common understanding of social mobility. The current popular focus is almost entirely on income as both the marker of social standing and the driver of social mobility. Yet social standing and social mobility have many different dimensions. Hout emphasized that circumstances of birth and upbringing, or more generally, “social origins,” bring together many different
factors. Hout offered a preliminary list of factors that, “in combination, can produce a characterization of social origins”:
• economic resources, including family income and wealth;
• employment status and quality of employment of family members;
• genetic endowment;
• cultural endowment, particularly parents’ educations;
• family location: neighborhood, urbanity, state, nation;
• family structure, including relationships (with parents, siblings, grandparents, extended kin on non-kin networks) and stability (under circumstances of separation, divorce, cohabitation, single parenting);
• family heritage: race, ethnicity, ancestry, nativity, citizenship; and
• timing (birth cohort).
Hout acknowledged that the list was provisional, noting, “Some items on this list are going to be on everybody’s list, other items will be stricken by some.” Nonetheless, he affirmed, “It certainly is incumbent on any team that is trying to do a contemporary mobility study to try and get as many of these into the study as possible.”
Varying Degrees of Intergenerational Transmission
In addition to multiple dimensions, intergenerational transmission of social standing can occur at varying rates and extents along these different dimensions and in changing circumstances and contexts. That is, Hout explained, “social origins constrain success to varying degrees.” Education, for example, may dampen the impact of origins. In general, origin effects decrease as education decreases. However, as later discussion explored, this may be truer of college education than was formerly the case, and less true of high school education. Changing circumstances and contexts shift the impact of different factors. Hout noted “the famous increase in economic inequalities” as well as the decreasing variation in parents’ educations and number of siblings as factors that affect how social origins are characterized and how their impact changes over time.
Looking over the range of dimensions of social origins, Hout remarked, “the variance in some of these is increasing; in some it is decreasing.” This led Hout to his final observation that “any simple bivariate mobility tablebased estimate is going to be subject to substantial excluded variable bias. If the variances in things and the weights on things are shifting in different ways over time, then we are just going to introduce even more confusion by not being complete in the degree to which we try and catalog and measure all of these things in the study.”
Several factors compel a new study of social mobility in the United States. In part, the issue has risen to public prominence. Matthew Snipp of Stanford University reflected on this in his presentation, “The End of the American Dream?: Why Social Mobility May Have Changed in the 21st Century,” prepared with the collaboration of David Grusky, also of Stanford University, and Timothy Smeeding of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. To Snipp, one impetus for the present inquiry is the now-widespread question of “whether or not the American dream is still intact in the way that it was for previous generations.” Snipp remarked on the prevalence of “handwringing and worrying” about the demise of the American dream of individual upward mobility in a range of contexts, from media talk shows to electoral campaign speeches.
Popular and Political Attention to Social Mobility
Snipp identified a distinct shift in popular and political discourse. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he observed, the elimination of poverty was a central focus of popular discussion, political speeches, and policy debates. At that time, “this country was very, very preoccupied with the question of poverty and what to do about poor people in this country and the elimination of poverty.” This concern has shifted. He stated, “The last round of public policy debates within the presidential campaign, you didn’t hear about poverty. Nobody was worrying about poverty and poor people in America. The concern and anxiety was really focused on the middle class.” Indeed, in Snipp’s view, “worrying about the middle class became something of a national obsession.” Yet, whether the conversation has occurred in the media, public policy think tanks, or government, he observed, “most of this conversation was a data-free conversation” but that ongoing popular and political attention to issues of social mobility calls for better data to inform the conversation.
Economic and Social Changes as Reasons to Revisit Mobility
Renewed attention to social mobility is also compelled by a number of significant economic and social changes, Snipp asserted. Chief among these is the immense increase in household income inequality and the possible consequent reduced opportunities for social mobility. Snipp cited the concern expressed by Alan Krueger, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, regarding the negative cross-national correlations between income inequality and social mobility (the so-called Great Gatsby Curve). Currently, according to Snipp, there is no definitive answer to what he termed a “chicken or egg” question of whether a “lack of occupa-
tional mobility begets income inequality or is income inequality begetting diminished opportunities in the labor market.”
Fluidity in a great variety of social structures and institutions may also be influencing current patterns of social mobility. Snipp presented an array of changes possibly relevant to social mobility. These include changes in family structure, education, labor markets, and immigration. Regarding families and their multiple and changing forms, Snipp noted, “It is an open question whether or not those kids have the same opportunity that the kids growing up in two-parent families, where both parents are married.”
Likewise, it is difficult to establish the implications for social mobility of changes in education, such as the emergence of new types of training institutions, charter schools, and online certifications. Further, Snipp noted the “striking differentials in returns to education” as the professional managerial class acquires ever greater returns to advanced degrees.
Changes have also proliferated in the labor market. As examples, he pointed to the demise of labor unions, the increase of female labor force participation, increasingly erratic and delayed labor force entry of young men, and the mass incarceration of African American men. Of this last, Snipp observed, “Incarceration also might have some impacts on mobility in ways that we might not think about. On the one hand, for people who become incarcerated, particularly African Americans, incarceration is an experience that follows you for a lifetime, even once you are released. It produces a profound disadvantage in the labor market. At the same time, by siphoning off large numbers of people who probably would have been immobile in the first place, you may be in fact increasing mobility by taking those individuals out of the labor market.” The issue cannot be properly explored without data, he posited.
Segmentation in the labor market also has an impact on social mobility, as advantages are concentrated for those in professional and managerial occupations. Snipp noted that the advantages that those in such occupations are able to confer on their children “are much greater than people in lower classes and lower paid occupations. These advantages come in lots of different ways. In addition to education, there may be the business of childcare, preschools, and other kinds of experiences, access to elite colleges, and a variety of other things, paying for student loans for children so that they don’t start a career in debt.” Thus, over generations, advantages may become concentrated at the top and disadvantages concentrated at the bottom.
Snipp saw a parallel in residential income segregation, as “people who are well-off and can live in good neighborhoods with access to good schools and libraries and parks and other kinds of amenities are in a position to confer the benefits of the amenities provided, to pass those
advantages on to their children.” In this as well, Snipp observed, “You see this growing bifurcation between the top and the bottom.”
Immigration is another area of great change with implications for social mobility. Snipp commented on “a spectacular rise in the number of persons coming to this country” and the “consequent realignment of the nation’s racial and ethnic composition.” An increase in interracial marriages, “especially interracial marriage involving Hispanics and non-Hispanics,” may also be relevant to social mobility, in Snipp’s view, as it may lower “past barriers to mobility for interracial families.”
Snipp also dwelt on cultural forces and their impact on social mobility. In the current mood of concern about the loss of the American dream, Snipp suggested, “people begin to worry about passing on the benefits and material wealth that they have acquired over their lifetime.” They therefore undertake a variety of investments—“private schooling, tutors, music lessons, afterschool sports, extracurricular activities, travel, a whole range of things that people can do for their children to sort of enrich their background and experience and provide them a leg up into the world once they have entered the job market or even before when they start for their schooling.” Snipp offered evidence of the disparities in time spent on various kinds of literacy activities with children. Relatively advantaged parents spend more time with their children and read more to them, which “has been shown to have an impact on how well kids do when they first enter school.” Yet again, “these differential investments by middle and upper middle class families benefit their children even very early on in their lives.”
Snipp acknowledged that his presentation had moved through a great many factors swiftly. Many of these topics were explored in much greater depth in subsequent presentations in the workshop. Snipp’s point, like Hout’s, was to emphasize the range of dimensions and factors that can affect social mobility. He also underscored not only the range, but also the variability of impact, as “all of these things have implications for either rigidification or fluidity in the mobility regime.” Finally, and most emphatically, Snipp lamented, “We really haven’t had much in the way of real data that would allow us to address these questions.”
The last thorough examination of social mobility, undertaken before the many economic and social changes that Snipp reviewed, occurred several decades ago. Robert M. Hauser, executive director of the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education at the National Research Council, was able to provide a firsthand account of that earlier work in his presentation. Hauser discussed the two very large surveys of social
mobility conducted in the United States. The first, the 1962 Occupational Changes in a Generation (OCG), was directed by Peter M. Blau and Otis Dudley Duncan and resulted in their publication The American Occupational Structure (1967). The second, the 1973 OCG, was directed by David L. Featherman and Hauser, resulting in their publication Opportunity and Change (1978).
Hauser described both endeavors as fairly large sample surveys with substantial statistical power. In 1962, the sample size was slightly more than 20,000; in 1973, the sample size was 33,600. Both surveys had limitations. They were conducted only once and were relatively restricted in content. Nonetheless, Hauser recognized, both of these were “bigger than can be conducted with the resources available now.”
Since these two surveys, Hauser continued, some measurements of social mobility have been undertaken. These include NORC’s General Social Survey, the 1986-1988 Survey of Income and Program Participation Supplements, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, and Social Security Administration earnings files. Hauser also noted that there is some possibility of getting limited measurements from the records of the Internal Revenue Service.
In considering the possibility of either another large-scale survey or surveys, comparable to the OCG, or a collection of efforts “to do a good job of measuring social mobility in the United States,” Hauser emphasized the value of a truly broad-based study. Referring to the myriad social changes highlighted in the background papers and discussed throughout the workshop, Hauser noted “the need for [a broad-based study] is greater because things have gotten so much more complicated.” Hauser returned to this point later in the workshop, as he encouraged participants to keep the focus wide, and not accord exclusive or excessive attention to income and wealth. He asked participants to reflect on “how misplaced the war on poverty was because it was just about money.” Indeed, in Hauser’s view, “So much social policy has been just about money. That is not all there is to life. It is really important that we keep that in mind.”
In a final point, Hauser also advocated recurrent attention to the issue and “regular monitoring of intergenerational social mobility in the United States.” This might be less frequent than other measurements, but nonetheless on a cycle that is “sufficiently regular so that the public at large and people in positions to make policy would know what the heck is going on.”