Income Inequality and Intergenerational Income Mobility in the United States

Is there a relationship between family income inequality and income mobility across generations in the United States? As family income inequality rose in the United States, parental resources available for improving children's health, education, and care diverged. The amount and rate of divergence also varied across US states. Researchers and policy analysts have expressed concern that relatively high inequality might be accompanied by relatively low mobility, tightening the connection between individuals' incomes during childhood and adulthood. Using data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, and various government sources, this paper exploits state and cohort variation to estimate the relationship between inequality and mobility. Results provide very little support for the hypothesis that inequality shapes mobility in the United States. The inequality children experienced during youth had no robust association with their economic mobility as adults. Formal analysis reveals that offsetting effects could underlie this result. In theory, mobility-enhancing forces may counterbalance mobility-reducing effects. In practice, the results suggest that in the US context, the intergenerational transmission of income may not be very responsive to changes in inequality.