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Escaping Poverty: Looking at U.S. Economic Mobility



During his State of the Union address tonight, President Obama is expected to talk about income inquality and economic mobility—issues that he has called “the defining challenge of our time.”

Indeed, the idea that the United States is a land of opportunity is becoming a myth, especially when this nation is compared to other rich countries. According to a new Harvard study, "the U.S. is better described as a collection of societies, some of which are 'lands of opportunity' with high rates of mobility across generations, and others in which few children escape poverty."

This morning, an NPR Morning Edition report examined the study, which shows that social mobility—the ability to climb the economic ladder through income-earning power—hasn't changed in the United States since the 1970s.  and that the consequences of not being able to climb the social ladder—such as limited job prospects and low-wage work—are far more dire than they were 40 years ago. 

“The notion that America is a special place where any kid can grow up to be president, is very important to the American psyche," David Wessel, a journalist and Brookings Institution analyst, told NPR. "But when you look at the data, it’s harder to rise from the bottom to the middle or from the middle to the top in the U.S. than in other rich countries around the world.”

Harvard economist Nathan Hendren, a co-author of the study, told NPR that data shows that a child born into the bottom fifth of wealth in the United States has only an 8 percent chance of reaching the top fifth, compared to a 16 percent chance if you are born in Denmark. 

The Washington Post recently used the Harvard study data to create an interactive map of economic mobility in the United States. While most children of lower-income parents make more money than their parents did, their ability to do varies substantially in this country. The map above gives an overview, but the full version allows you to see, down to the county, if children in your area have opportunity to earn more, and achieve more, than their parents. 

To learn more about income inequality, economic mobility, and what the United States can do to close the gap, read Bread for the World Institute's 2014 Hunger Report, Ending Hunger in America.


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I would be very curious about the statistics of getting to the middle fifth, not to the top fifth. I was puzzled why there was discussion only of the chance of getting to the top. Many of these families would be content to get into the middle, to climb out of poverty.

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