Economic mobility: No better, no worse

January 23, 2014: 1:03 PM ET
Stiglitz on how to fix the income gap
NEW YORK (CNNMoney)

Climbing the economic ladder today is no harder than it was two decades ago, a new study has found. But at the same time, income inequality has increased so the rungs on that ladder have grown farther apart.

Children born in 1986 to the lowest income families have about the same chance -- roughly 9% -- of reaching the highest income levels as their peers born in 1971, according to the academic paper published Thursday.

For those born more recently, the paper's authors compared the likelihood of poor children going to college against their richest peers since many of these kids are still in school or just entering the workforce. They found the gap for children born in 1993 to be only slightly smaller than those born in 1984.

"We find that children entering the labor market today have the same chances of moving up in the income distribution (relative to their parents) as children born in the 1970s," wrote the authors, led by Raj Chetty, a Harvard economics professor.

The myth of the American Dream

While economic mobility has remained stable, income inequality has increased, the study found. That means a child's income now depends more heavily on his or her parents' position in the income distribution.

The study also found that mobility varies by region in the U.S., with it being harder for a child to rise in parts of the Southeast, compared to the Mountain states.

Income inequality and economic mobility have become key talking points for Democrats and Republicans this year, with both parties championing ways to revive the American Dream. President Obama and Rep. Paul Ryan have both emphasized the issue in recent weeks.

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