Have there been any studies looking at long term trends in class mobility? I'm particularly interested in data from the United States, but similar studies about other countries would also be interesting.
There have been several studies, most of which have found no movement in class mobility over the past several decades.
The New Yorker reported on a recent study of class mobility by the National Bureau of Economic Research which found that, between generations, there was no change in social mobility. From the paper's abstract:
Based on all of these measures, 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. However, because inequality has risen, the consequences of the “birth lottery” – the parents to whom a child is born – are larger today than in the past.
Another study by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2006 resulted in similar findings:
Our results, which pertain to the cohorts born between 1952 and 1975, do not reveal major changes in intergenerational mobility
The New Yorker article notes that, while it is good that social mobility is not declining, mobility in the United States still remains below that of other nations.
Relative to many other advanced countries, the United States remains a highly stratified society, and most poor kids still have few prospects of making big strides.
After posting this question, I received the February 1st - 7th edition of the Economist. In it there happen to be two articles on long term studies of class mobility.
The First Article
The first article discusses a joint Harvard/UC Berkeley study. About the study they say:
The study, by a clutch of economists at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley, is far bigger than any previous effort to measure social mobility. The economists crunch numbers from over 40m tax returns of people born between 1971 and 1993 (with all identifying information removed). They focus on mobility between generations and use several ways to measure it, including the correlation of parents’ and children’s income, and the odds that a child born into the bottom fifth of the income distribution will climb all the way up to the top fifth.
They find that none of these measures has changed much (see chart).
The referenced chart is shown below.
The Second Article
The second article is actually a book review of "The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility." by Gregory Clark. About it The Economist says
Conventional research has it that society is highly fluid: the effect of inheritance is almost nil in some Nordic societies, and family explains no more than 25% of an adult child’s status in America, which has always been less mobile. But Mr Clark points out that these studies track change over just two or three generations and are therefore biased by quirks of fate: the working-class lottery-winner or the scion who chooses social work over high finance. Longer projects average out this randomness and paint a darker picture.
Mr Clark draws upon research that uses surnames to track status over centuries... With surprising consistency across countries and eras, mobility is found to be painfully slow. Birth has predicted more than 50% of one’s income or education status, Mr Clark reckons. Erasing the legacy of past prosperity takes 10-15 generations rather than the three or four implied by sunnier estimates. So the shadow of 18th-century wealth still darkens income distributions today
After criticizing him a bit they go on to mention that ;
Mr Clark follows his logic to an unexpectedly egalitarian end. Redistribution is sensible, he argues, not in order to boost mobility but because mobility is intractably low. The cream will rise regardless, and so paying extraordinary salaries to capable workers is unnecessary.
The answers above have mentioned great studies, but I would still like to contribute and recommend the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) experiment.
Though it is primarily focused on effects of neighborhood quality on income, I feel it still relates because the goal is to find any change in the individuals ability to increase income and wealth after moving out of their neighborhood. These select individuals are those who have been raised in neighborhoods of lower quality and homes reflecting lower household income.