A new report from the Brookings Institution examines who makes it to the middle class through achieving a number of benchmarks. A summary of the findings:
The study breaks life down into stages (for instance, adolescence) and gives benchmarks for each of those stages (in that case, graduation from high school with a grade-point average above 2.5, no criminal convictions and no involvement in a teenage pregnancy).
They then studied children over time, analyzing whether they met those benchmarks and projecting whether they would make it to the middle class — defined as the top three quintiles of income — by age 40.
Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that success seems to beget success — meeting each benchmark makes one more likely to meet the next. Moreover, the effect accumulates. A child who meets all the criteria from birth to adulthood has an 81 percent chance of being middle class. A child who meets none has only a 24 percent chance…
Race matters as well. About two in five black adolescents met the benchmark of graduating from high school with a decent grade point average, no children and no criminal record by the age of 19. About two in three white adolescents did.
The reality is that economic success in America is not purely meritocratic. We don’t have as much equality of opportunity as we’d like to believe, and we have less mobility than some other developed countries. Although cross-national comparisons are not always reliable, the available data suggest that the U.S. compares unfavorably to Canada, the Nordic countries, and some other advanced countries. A recent study shows the U.S. ranking 27th out of 31 developed countries in measures of equal opportunity.
People do move up and down the ladder, both over their careers and between generations, but it helps if you have the right parents. 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.
This shouldn’t be too surprising: despite the American cultural emphasis on working hard and getting ahead (a story told by both political parties at their 2012 conventions), certain traits increase the likelihood of achieving a middle-class life. Hard work only goes so far; other social factors such as family background, race, and gender make a difference.
I am intrigued by how the report defines the middle-class life stages as defined by the Social Genome Model (p.3-4 of the report):
1. Family Formation. Born at normal birth weight to a non-poor, married mother with at least a high school diploma.
2. Early childhood. Acceptable pre-reading and math skills AND behavior generally school-appropriate.
3. Middle childhood. Basic reading and math skills AND Social-emotional skills.
4. Adolescence. Graduates from high school w/GPA >= 2.5 AND Has not been convicted of a crime nor become a parent.
5. Transition to adulthood. Lives independently AND Receives a college degree or has a family income >= 250% of the poverty level.
6. Adulthood. Reaches middle class (family income at least 300% of the poverty level).
Why exactly these stages?