Sociology Index

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Economic Mobility

Economic mobility, measured in income, is the ability of an individual or family to improve or lower their economic status. Economic mobility is also social mobility measured in change in income. Economic mobility is measured by movement in household income. Economic mobility is also caused by Educational Inequality. Economic mobility hasn’t changed in a half-century in America, economists declare. Americans have always placed great faith in economic mobility, the idea that any child born into poverty can grow up to be middle class, or that a middle-class kid can grow up to be rich. Economic Mobility may be between generations or within a person lifetime. It may be absolute or relative. Inter-generational economic mobility compares a person’s income to that of her parents. Intra-generational economic mobility refers to movement up or down over the course of a working career. People strongly believe in economic mobility because they underestimate economic inequality. Attributing wealth/poverty more to external than internal factors reduces the belief in economic mobility. As a result, high economic inequality weakens the belief in economic mobility.

Though America claims equality of opportunity, a child’s economic position is influenced by that of his or her parents. There was income and economic mobility of individuals within a single generation in the U.S. economy during the 1996-2005 period as more than half of taxpayers moved to a different income quintile over this period. 

Though the education system in the United States has been considered effective and equal process for all individuals to improve one’s economic standing, family background continues to play a huge role in determining economic success. Absolute mobility shows us to what extent do families have improved their incomes over a generation. Relative mobility is specific to individuals without relation to the economy as a whole. Relative mobility is a zero-sum game, absolute mobility is not a zero-sum game.

Why do Americans believe in economic mobility? Economic inequality, external attributions of wealth and poverty, and the belief in economic mobility. - Shai Davidai, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Volume 79, November 2018. Abstract: Although the rates of economic inequality in the United States are at their highest since the onset of The Great Depression, many Americans do not seem as concerned as may be expected. This apparent lack of concern has been attributed to people's deeply-entrenched belief in economic mobility, the belief that through hard work, determination, and skill people are able to rise up the economic ladder. Little is known, however, about why Americans so strongly believe in economic mobility. I examine the relationship between economic inequality and the belief in economic mobility. I find that people (accurately) perceive a negative relationship between economic inequality and economic mobility, and that this is due to the attributions they make about wealth and poverty. People's tendency to underestimate economic inequality reinforces their belief in economic mobility.