Downward Mobility from the Middle Class: Waking Up from the American Dream

The Pew Charitable Trusts

One-third of Americans who grow up in a middle-class family, defined as between 30 percent and 70 percent of income distribution, fall out of the middle class as adults. This report by the Pew Charitable Trusts evaluated downward mobility among black, white and Hispanic men and women who were raised in the middle class in three categories: those who fell out of the middle class, those who fell at least 20 percentiles below their parents in income distribution and those whose income is at least 20 percent below that of their parents.

Factors associated with individuals’ downward economic mobility include marital status, level of education and scores on the Armed Forces Qualification Tests.  The report found that people who are divorced, widowed or separated are more likely to fall down the economic ladder than those who are married.  Married women are between 31 percent and 36 percent less likely to fall down the economic ladder than divorced, separated or widowed women, and 16 percent to 19 percent less likely than women who never married.

Those who obtain education after high school are less likely to fall down the economic ladder.  Men with no more than a high school diploma are 7 percent to 15 percent more likely to be downwardly mobile than men with postsecondary education.  Women with a high school diploma or less are 14 percent to 16 percent more likely to fall economically than women with higher degrees.  Lower scores on the AFQT and proof of drug use also signaled downward mobility among the people surveyed. 

Gender and race are two other factors that play into who will fall below middle class in adulthood.  White women are 9 percent more likely to be downwardly mobile than white men.  Black men have a 38 percent chance of dropping below middle class compared to 21 percent of white men.  Women of all three races, however, have the same chance of dropping below middle class.

The report drew information from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth of 1979 that surveyed children ages 14 to 17 while they lived at home.  In 2004 and 2006, the economic status of the same children – by then 39 to 44 – were assessed and compared with their families’ incomes when they were growing up.

To read the free, 36 page report, click here.


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