Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution has suggested that a child’s likelihood to obtain a college education or break out of poverty is greatly influenced by the father’s education and income level.
Reeves uses graphs from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics at the University of Michigan to show how closely linked the education and income level of the father is to the future success of his child. He suggests that in a world of completely equal opportunities, 20% of each group would end up in the other four groups in each generation.
However, that is not the case. He found that 41% of children whose father had a top-level education remained in that same group, and 36% of those whose father is in bottom income bracket stayed in that group as well.
The pattern doesn’t hold for everyone, of course. Of the children who started out in the bottom income level, 35% ended up becoming middle class citizens or above, about equal to the percentage of children who stay in the same income bracket.
“I think the truth is somewhere in the middle,” Reeves said. There is mobility, but there is also not a pure meritocracy. “The persistence of income over generations at both the top and the bottom is high enough to make us ask questions about what is causing that,” he added.
“But if you start with the view that, of course those who have rich parents are going to end up better off, if you start with that, then you could conclude that there’s actually quite a lot of movement,” he added.
According to Reeves, some move up while others remain at the level of their fathers due to the acronym FERG, which stands for Family, Education, Race and Geography. Because race and geography are harder to affect, Reeves suggests beginning by thinking about family and education.
Reeves said that some family expectations are instilled in children from an early age. He gives the example that most high school seniors whose families are in the top 25% of incomes assume they will go on to earn a post-graduate degree after college.
He suggests that education is the most important variable, and is in great need of being addressed in the US, suggesting that the K-12 education system in the country actually replicates both privilege and poverty in each generation.
Reeves did touch upon race and geography, saying the two are intertwined, noting that neighborhoods that have high poverty rates also have high racial minority numbers.
In addition, single parents seem to also be influenced by race and ethnicity, as Asian-Americans are more likely to raise their mobility than Latinos or African-Americans are, possibly due to their greater family stability.