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The Changing Effect of Family Background on the Incomes of American Adults


  • Harding, David J.

    (Harvard U)

  • Jencks, Christopher

    (Harvard U)

  • Lopoo, Leonard M.

    (Syracuse U)

  • Mayer, Susan E.

    (U of Chicago)


We analyze changes in the determinants of family income between 1961 and 1999, focusing on the effect of parental education, occupational rank, income, marital status, family size, region of residence, race, and ethnicity. Our data, which cover respondents between the ages of thirty and fifty-nine, come from two Occupational Changes in a Generation surveys, the General Social Survey, and the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. The multiple correlation between respondents’ family income and their parents’ characteristics fell between 1961 to 1999. During the 1960s the overall dispersion of respondents’ family incomes also fell, so the income gap between respondents from advantaged and disadvantaged families narrowed dramatically. During the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s the overall dispersion of respondents’ family income rose again. But because the correlation between respondents’ family income and their parents’ characteristics was still falling, the income gap between respondents from advantaged and disadvantaged families showed no consistent trend. All else equal, the economic cost of being Black, Hispanic, or born in the South fell between 1961 and 1999. The cost of having a parent who worked in an unskilled rather than a skilled occupation fell between 1961 and 1972 but not after that. Indeed, occupational inequality among parents has probably become more important since 1972. Neither the effect of parental education nor the effect of parental income changed significantly during the years for which we have data. Daughters were considerably less mobile than sons in the 1970s, but this difference diminished in the 1980s and 1990s. Respondents with parents in the bottom quarter of the socioeconomic distribution were more likely to remain in their quartile of origin than respondents with parents in the top quarter of the distribution. We conclude by arguing that while both justice and economic efficiency require a significant amount of exchange mobility, neither justice nor efficiency implies that the correlation between family income and parental advantages ought to be zero. The case for programs that seek to reduce intergenerational inheritance depends on whether they reduce poverty and inequality.

Suggested Citation

  • Harding, David J. & Jencks, Christopher & Lopoo, Leonard M. & Mayer, Susan E., 2003. "The Changing Effect of Family Background on the Incomes of American Adults," Working Paper Series rwp03-045, Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government.
  • Handle: RePEc:ecl:harjfk:rwp03-045

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    4. Susan E. Mayer & Leonard M. Lopoo, 2005. "Has the Intergenerational Transmission of Economic Status Changed?," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 40(1).
    5. Jencks, Christopher & Mayer, Susan E. & Swingle, Joseph, 2004. "Who Has Benefited from Economic Growth in the United States Since 1969? The Case of Children," Working Paper Series rwp04-017, Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government.
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    Cited by:

    1. Lane Kenworthy & Timothy Smeeding, 2013. "GINI Country Report: Growing Inequalities and their Impacts in the United States," GINI Country Reports united_states, AIAS, Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Labour Studies.
    2. Brian Nolan & Gosta Esping-Andersen & Christopher T. Whelan & Bertrand Maitre, 2010. "The Role of Social Institutions in Inter-Generational Mobility," Working Papers 201018, Geary Institute, University College Dublin.
    3. Mayer, Susan E. & Lopoo, Leonard M., 2008. "Government spending and intergenerational mobility," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 92(1-2), pages 139-158, February.
    4. Marianne Hansen, 2010. "Change in intergenerational economic mobility in Norway: conventional versus joint classifications of economic origin," The Journal of Economic Inequality, Springer;Society for the Study of Economic Inequality, vol. 8(2), pages 133-151, June.
    5. Sato, Hiroshi & Li, Shi, 2013. "Influence Of Family Background On Current Family Wealth In Rural China," Hitotsubashi Journal of Economics, Hitotsubashi University, vol. 54(1), pages 95-117, June.
    6. O'Connell, Michael & Sheikh, Hammad, 2008. "Achievement-related attitudes and the fate of "at-risk" groups in society," Journal of Economic Psychology, Elsevier, vol. 29(4), pages 508-521, August.
    7. Sato, Hiroshi & Li, Shi, 2007. "Revolution and Family in Rural China: Influence of Family Background on Current Family Wealth," IZA Discussion Papers 3223, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    8. repec:pri:crcwel:wp02-04-fertig is not listed on IDEAS
    9. Hyytinen, Ari & Ilmakunnas, Pekka & Johansson, Edvard & Toivanen, Otto, 2013. "Heritability of Lifetime Income," MPRA Paper 46326, University Library of Munich, Germany.

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