Can Children Overcome Their Parents’ Disadvantage?

June 20, 2012

Contact: Timothy Smeeding, (608) 890-1317,

From Parents to Children ThumbnailMADISON – Children tend to “inherit” their parents’ socioeconomic status. Offspring of parents with advanced degrees, high income, or great wealth usually enjoy similar status and economic security in their own adulthood, and children of parents without these advantages tend to remain disadvantaged when they grow up. This is true in the United States and many other countries as well, and many people think such inequality is unfair.

What is not known is how and why advantage is passed on from parent to child; how transmission varies over the life course; whether advantage accumulates within generations; and what policies, institutions, and processes (such as universal preschool, for example) mediate the link.

Cross-national studies can provide a unique glimpse into the mechanisms behind inequality and mobility, which could lead to promising strategies for leveling the playing field in a time of rising economic inequality in the United States, but such analyses have been precluded in the past by incompatibility of data between countries.

However, harmonization of data sets for Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States has enabled a group of esteemed international researchers to conduct a coordinated set of international studies to explore inequality of resources and opportunity. Their findings are presented in From Parents to Children: The Intergenerational Transmission of Advantage, edited by John Ermisch, Markus Jäntti, and Timothy M. Smeeding, who oversaw the studies.

Smeeding, an economist at the University of Wisconsin La Follette School of Public Affairs and director of the UW’s Institute for Research on Poverty, founded the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS), an independent nonprofit research center and cross-national database of income, wealth, labor market, and demographic information of citizens from more than 30 countries. He is internationally recognized for his expertise in cross-national studies that shed light on inequality and poverty in the United States. The volume co-editors are similarly experienced in cross-national research. Ermisch is professor of family demography at Oxford University and Jäntti is professor of economics at Stockholm University’s Swedish Institute for Social Research and research director of LIS.

Commenting on the concept of equal opportunity as quintessentially American, Smeeding notes, “Ironically, the evidence shows that children in the USA—where inequality is highest—have the least equal opportunities of all the countries studied in multiple dimensions. The mobility gradients across parental education for cognitive, behavioral, and job-related outcomes are the steepest of the countries studied.”

From Parents to Children shows that these disparities are found in U.S. comparisons abroad and close to home. Chapter author Miles Corak, professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, found in his study that compares the effects of family background on mobility in outcomes in Canada and the United States that “on average, it is pretty clear that there is more mobility, up to three times more mobility, in Canada than in the United States.”

Corak continues, “The ‘American Dream’ is a very important metaphor in the United States; indeed some would say a defining metaphor. But it has a host of meanings, and our analysis speaks to the idea that economic outcomes should be the result of the energies, talents, and motivations of individuals than of their family background. The American Dream is about becoming all that you can be regardless of your starting point in life.”

From Parents to Children explores the cross-national evidence resulting from an unparalleled examination of how and why advantage and disadvantage tend to be passed on from one generation to the next. The work is an important step toward gaining the crucial understanding necessary for developing strategies to level the playing field and give all children equal opportunities to succeed, regardless of their parents’ station in life.

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