One way to assess the extent of mobility is to ask whether people tend to be better off than their parents were at the same age — whether they experience upward absolute mobility. Research for EMP conducted by my colleagues at the Brookings Institution Julia Isaacs, Isabel Sawhill, and Ron Haskins shows that two-thirds of 40-year-old Americans are in households with larger incomes than their parents had at the same age, even taking into account the fact that the cost of living has risen. That’s pretty impressive, but it actually understates the improvement between generations. Household size declined over these decades, so incomes now are divided up among fewer family members, leaving them better off than bigger households of the past. Another EMP study shows that when incomes are adjusted for household size, four out of five adults today are better off than their parents were at the same age.
The finding of pervasive upward absolute mobility flies in the face of liberal accounts of a stagnant middle class. These accounts generally conflate disappointing growth in men’s earnings with growth in household income, which has been impressive. Growth in women’s earnings has also been impressive, but economic pessimists have twisted these bright spots to fit a gloomy narrative. They claim that household incomes have kept pace only because wives have been forced into work to make up for the shrinking bacon their husbands bring home. That ignores the long-term trend of women’s obtaining more education in industrialized nations around the world, presumably with an intention to put it to use in the work force someday. It also ignores the evidence that married men rationally chose to reduce their work hours as their wives increased theirs (even as single men continued working the same hours), and the fact that employment grew more among the wives of better-educated men than among the wives of less-educated men.
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Scott Winship on inequality: