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Earnings Mobility in the US: A New Look at Intergenerational Inequality

  • Bhashkar Mazumder

This study uses a new data set that contains the Social Security earnings histories of parents and children in the 1984 Survey of Income and Program Participation, to measure the intergenerational elasticity in earnings in the United States. Earlier studies that found an intergenerational elasticity of 0.4 have typically used only up to five-year averages of fathers’ earnings to measure fathers’ permanent earnings. However, dynamic earnings models that allow for serial correlation in transitory shocks to earnings imply that using such a short time span may lead to estimates that are biased down by nearly 30 percent. Indeed, by using many more years of fathers' earnings than earlier studies, the intergenerational elasticity between fathers and sons is estimated to be around 0.6 implying significantly less mobility in the U.S. than previous research indicated. The elasticity in earnings between fathers and daughters is of a similar magnitude. The evidence also suggests that family income has an even larger effect than fathers’ earnings on children's future labor market success. The elasticity of earnings is higher for families with low net worth, offering some empirical support for theoretical models that predict differences due to borrowing constraints. Some evidence of a higher elasticity among blacks is found but the results are not conclusive.

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Paper provided by Center for Economic Studies, U.S. Census Bureau in its series Working Papers with number 02-11.

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Date of creation: May 2002
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Handle: RePEc:cen:wpaper:02-11
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  1. Heisz, Andrew & Corak, Miles, 1998. "The Intergenerational Earnings and Income Mobility of Canadian Men: Evidence from Longitudinal Income Tax Data," Analytical Studies Branch Research Paper Series 1998113e, Statistics Canada, Analytical Studies Branch.
  2. David Card, 1990. "Intertemporal Labor Supply: An Assessment," Working Papers 649, Princeton University, Department of Economics, Industrial Relations Section..
  3. Becker, Gary S & Tomes, Nigel, 1979. "An Equilibrium Theory of the Distribution of Income and Intergenerational Mobility," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 87(6), pages 1153-89, December.
  4. Behrman, Jere & Tarbman, Paul, 1985. "Intergenerational Earnings Mobility in the United States: Some Estimates and a Test of Becker's Intergenerational Endowments Model," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 67(1), pages 144-51, February.
  5. MaCurdy, Thomas E., 1982. "The use of time series processes to model the error structure of earnings in a longitudinal data analysis," Journal of Econometrics, Elsevier, vol. 18(1), pages 83-114, January.
  6. Dean R. Hyslop, 2001. "Rising U.S. Earnings Inequality and Family Labor Supply: The Covariance Structure of Intrafamily Earnings," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 91(4), pages 755-777, September.
  7. Becker, Gary S & Tomes, Nigel, 1986. "Human Capital and the Rise and Fall of Families," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 4(3), pages S1-39, July.
  8. Lorraine Dearden & Steve Machin & Howard Reed, 1995. "Intergenerational mobility in Britain," IFS Working Papers W95/20, Institute for Fiscal Studies.
  9. Peters, H Elizabeth, 1992. "Patterns of Intergenerational Mobility in Income and Earnings," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 74(3), pages 456-66, August.
  10. Joseph G. Altonji & Thomas A. Dunn, 1991. "Relationships Among the Family Incomes and Labor Market Outcomes of Relatives," NBER Working Papers 3724, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  11. Couch, Kenneth A. & Lillard, Dean R., 1998. "Sample selection rules and the intergenerational correlation of earnings," Labour Economics, Elsevier, vol. 5(3), pages 313-329, September.
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