May 2016

IZA DP No. 9929: Inequality from Generation to Generation: The United States in Comparison

published in: Robert Rycroft (editor). The Economics of Inequality, Poverty, and Discrimination in the 21st Century. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2013

To understand the degree of intergenerational mobility in the United States, and the differences between Americans and others, it is important to appreciate the workings and interaction of three fundamental institutions: the family, the market, and the state. But comparisons can also be misleading. The way in which families, labor markets, and government policy determine the life chances of children is complicated; the result of a particular history, societal values, and the nature of the political process. It might be one thing to say that the United States has significantly less intergenerational mobility than Denmark or Norway, but it is entirely another thing to suggest that these countries offer templates for the conduct of public policy that can be applied on this side of the Atlantic. There is no way to get from here to there. It is helpful to focus on a particularly apt comparison, that between the United States and Canada, in order to illustrate how the configuration of the forces determining the transmission of inequality across generations differs in spite of the fact that both of these countries share many other things in common, particularly the importance and meaning of equality of opportunity and the role of individual hard work and motivation.