Studies on Social Mobility

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Sun Aug 27 13:04:08 PDT 2000

kelley wrote:

>forwarded query from another list:
>To All:
>The Wall Street Journal of 17 August dusted off and referred to two
>studies attempting to show social mobility is the rule, rather than the
>exception, in the United States. One study, a "U.S. Treasury" study of
>14,351 households, which found in a nine-year period between 1979 to
>1988 86% of those in the lowest income quintile "moved up, two-thirds to
>the middle-class and almost 15% into 'that piggy' top quintile."
>The second study quoted was a University of Michigan Panel Survey on
>Income Dynamics, which tracked over 3,000 people from 1975 to 1991. The
>study purportedly found that after 17 years only 5% of the "bottom
>dwellers" were still on the bottom, concluding that 95%, therefore,
>moved up, "29% were setting plumply in the top fifth."
>I believe I have heard of the "U.S. Treasury" study and the rather poor
>methodology used by those conducting it. I seem to remember it having
>been solidly discredited by those who have looked into the methodology.
>(Somehow, I seem to recall it was conducted at the bequest of a
>Republican-led committee within Congress, but I am not sure). I have
>not heard of the University of Michigan Panel Survey.
>Has anyone heard of either of these studies and where one might get a
>copies? I am particularly interested in the methodologies, findings,
>and sampling; as well as, reactions. I would like to use these as
>examples in my Intro and social stratification classes this fall.

Both these classics have been pretty thoroughly discredited. The Treasury study looked only at taxpayers, thereby ignoring people too poor to file taxes. The other study, by Cox & Alm for the Dallas Fed, used individuals as their unit, not households, and started with people at age 16, when their incomes were tiny. Their contribution to mobility was simply growing up. They also used real incomes rather than relative quintile standings.

EPI has an excellent 1969-94 mobility chart, in Excel format, at <> done by Peter Gottschalk, who shredded the Cox & Alm nonsense (which was incorporated wholesale into their book, Myths of Rich & Poor, without even mentioning Gottshalk's critique).


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