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Has Mobility in the United States Really Declined?

Drawing on a brilliant book by Berkeley’s Neil Gilbert, I recently (April 25) wrote about how family fragmentation adversely affects economic and social mobility.  But what about perpetual claims that mobility overall in the United States has declined precipitously?  This has become a staple charge by commentators and politicians on the left – especially if the latter are running for president.  Yet is it empirically true?  What does Gilbert’s 2017 book, Never Enough: Capitalism and the Progressive Spirit, say about the matter?  Here’s an extended excerpt (p. 111).

The passage begins with Gilbert citing “remarkable discrepancies in the research findings,” quoting economist Miles Corak, who has written about how the “range is so wide as to make international comparisons entirely questionable.”  Gilbert goes on:

This is no secret among scholars who carefully study the topic.  Summarizing the state of knowledge in 2013, Jantti and Jenkins testify that the evidence has ‘revealed few clear cut conclusions about whether mobility as been increasing over time or decreasing in particular and whether mobility is greater in one country rather than another.

“The certainty and imprecision,” Gilbert continues, “signified by an array of discrepant findings stand in stark contrast to the confidence expressed by the progressive media and some academics in claiming that the United States has an exceptionally low degree of economic mobility.  Contrary to these claims, the findings from the Harvard-Berkeley study in 2014 tell another story.”

According to that study, “the United States should have been placed smack in the middle of the mobility rates . . . just after the Scandinavian countries; compared to a larger sample of fourteen countries, the United States would rank fourth, again just behind Finland, Denmark, and Norway.  There is good reason to believe that this rigorous study of about 50 million children (emphasis supplied) over more than two decades offers the most precise estimate to dates of intergenerational mobility in the United States.”