Two days’ graphs: Not so mobile


“If you don’t have a job and you are not rich, blame yourself!” So spoke Herman Cain during his brief bubble of frontrunnerdom in the presidential primary. He was giving voice to a myth favored by conservatives who would like nothing better than to write off every social ill as a personal failing.

This up-by-your-own-bootstraps fairy tale, however, is not playing out in the United States today.

(Data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics as analyzed by Tom Hertz of American University)

The academic terms for moving up and down the socioeconomic ladder include “social mobility,” “income mobility,” and “economic mobility.” For our purposes today, we’ll just term the whole idea “mobility.”

Now, mobility is difficult to graph because there are many different ways of measuring it. Today, we’re looking at intergenerational mobility by household income from 1967-2000. The people in this data set were organized based on the income quintile of the population they were born into between 1967 and 1971.

The data collectors checked in with them regularly over the course of their life, and we can see in this graph how many people made it to the top 5% of the group sometime during 1994-2000. The 5% aren’t exactly the “rich” Herman Cain wants us to blame ourselves for not being, but they are comfortably upper middle class.

If we truly operated in a meritocracy, we would expect the first five bars to all be about 5%. If everybody really has an equal shot at being rich, dependent only on their hard work, the rich should have as many people from the bottom quintile as from the top. As we can see, this is not the case; someone born into the bottom quintile had a roughly 1% chance of making it to the top, while someone already born into the top 5% had a better than 20% chance of being there again.

In other words, a person born at the top was 20 times more likely to stay there than a person at the bottom was likely to climb their way up. That doesn’t sound like a fair shot to me, and conservatives who say otherwise are selling a bag of goods. It’s time to call out our modern aristocracy for what it is.

Part Two

Above, we looked at how likely it was that someone would end up in the top 5%. That was one way of looking at social mobility in our country, but not the only way. The top 5%, after all, is a pretty elite place to be, and it’s understandable that there could be some pretty significant barriers to getting in if that isn’t where you started.

What about just plain moving up the ladder? Well, take a look at the graph.

(Data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics as analyzed by Tom Hertz of American University)

This graph shows how likely it is that somebody ends up in the bottom 20% based on what group they were born into. As we can see, the people most likely to end up in the bottom 20% are…the bottom 20%.

Indeed, more than 4 out of every 10 people born into the bottom quintile stay in the bottom quintile. I can think of a lot of different terms for what this is, but “mobile” isn’t one of them.

As a reminder, if we actually lived in a society where people moved up and down based solely on their personal characteristics (and if those characteristics were distributed equally among children at birth), each of those first five bars should be somewhere around 20%. Something is clearly not working right.

There’s not a lot of lifting by the bootstraps going on here, perhaps because there’s a shortage of bootstraps. Our responsibility as a society is to identify and remedy those systemic failures of opportunity that help the rich stay rich and pressure the poor to stay poor.

I have a hard time believing that someone born into the bottom quintile is, by their nature, seven times lazier or duller than someone born into the top quintile. The system itself is not working as conservatives would have us believe. It’s time to change that.