How Do Americans Perceive Economic Mobility?

Head shot photo of Siwei ChengSiwei Cheng, an assistant professor of sociology at New York University, will present her work on February 26 at a seminar hosted by The Graduate Center’s Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality. The event is part of the Stone Center’s Inequality Seminar Series, which gives researchers the opportunity to present new work to small audiences, enabling intensive discussion and feedback.
Cheng will be discussing a study that considers two contradictory observations about mobility in America: Intergenerational mobility is low and remarkably stable, yet Americans seem optimistic about mobility and opportunity. Cheng and her co-author argue that previous work tends to focus on perceived mobility for specific income groups. They propose a new survey instrument that differentiates perceived mobility outcomes across the parental income distribution and report findings in a large-sample survey.
What led you to investigate perceptions about equality of opportunity, and why is this subject important to the study of inequality?
I believe that if we adopt a more comprehensive measure of mobility perceptions, Americans’ beliefs about the equality of opportunity may not always turn out to be as optimistic as previously believed.
Studying perceptions about mobility has broader implications for inequality research in general. Intergenerational mobility indicates the openness, fluidity, and fairness in a society. Promoting the equality of opportunity has become a pressing policy concern, particularly in the recent era of rising economic inequality. How people view the status of mobility affects their openness or resistance to policy solutions that potentially reduce inequality and promote mobility.

Your paper argues that social scientists have held an overly simplified understanding of perceptions of mobility. What do you think researchers have misunderstood in the past?
In the paper to be presented at the workshop, we suspect that how Americans feel about these social issues may be a complex matter that involves different and sometimes contradicting beliefs about different dimensions of inequality and mobility. While previous work has taken important steps to understand the public perceptions of mobility, most of their measures tend to focus on the perceived transition probabilities for children from specific positions of the parental income distribution, such as the transition probability from bottom to top or from top to bottom. A more comprehensive understanding of perceived mobility prospect across the entire distribution of parental income distribution is missing from prior work.

You developed a new survey instrument that gives a more nuanced understanding of perceptions of mobility. Can you explain how this new tool works?
In our study, we propose a novel survey instrument that differentiates perceived mobility outcomes across the parental income distribution and measures the public perceptions of relative mobility. This survey instrument solicits the public perceptions of the relationship between the parent’s and child’s income ranks, which can then be compared against the objective rank-rank relationship reported by empirical work based on tax data. For example, if the perceived rank-rank slope is steeper than it is in reality, then we can conclude that the public holds pessimistic views about relative mobility — that is, the equality of opportunity between children from rich and poor families.
You used the new survey instrument in an experiment. What were your findings, and how did they surprise you?

We conclude that Americans are pessimistic about the equality of opportunity among children born to rich and poor parents. This finding challenges the prior belief that Americans hold an optimistic view about the openness of the society, and is instead consistent with the idea that the everyday experiences of highly unequal opportunity between children from poorer and wealthier families may have indeed affected how the general public thinks about the openness of the society. We further show that the pessimism about relative mobility results from their overstatement of income ranks for children from families in the middle and higher end of the income distribution and their understatement of income ranks for children from low-income families.
With large-scale, population-representative data, we show that Americans are aware of, if not quite pessimistic about, the remarkably unequal distribution of economic outcomes by family background. We call for an extended scope of inquiries that bridge the empirical research on economic mobility with research on the social, political, and psychological processes that shape how the public thinks about it. We also highlight the need for policy and political solutions to seriously engage with Americans' concerns about the equality of opportunity in the society.

What do you plan to work on next?
My co-author and I are working on several additional survey experiments related to the current study. In those experiments, we examine whether individuals’ attitudes towards redistributional policies will change if we provide them with various types of information about the social reality of economic mobility. I myself am also working on a research project exploring the trends, causes, and consequences of labor market polarization.

Siwei Cheng is an assistant professor of sociology at New York University. Her research focuses on labor market inequality and has been published in the American Journal of SociologyAmerican Sociological Review, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Submitted on: FEB 15, 2019

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