Americans overestimate the intergenerational persistence in income ranks

Siwei Cheng, Fangqi Wen

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Recent research suggests that intergenerational income mobility has remained low and stable in America, but popular discourse routinely assumes that Americans are optimistic about mobility prospects in society. Examining these 2 seemingly contradictory observations requires a careful measurement of the public’s perceptions of mobility. Unlike most previous work that measures perceptions about mobility outcomes for the overall population or certain subgroups, we propose a survey instrument that emphasizes the variation in perceived mobility prospects for hypothetical children across parent income ranks. Based on this survey instrument, we derive the perceived relationship between the income ranks of parents and children, which can then be compared against the actual rank–rank relationship reported by empirical work based on tax data. We fielded this instrument in a general population survey experiment (n = 3,077). Our results suggest that Americans overestimate the intergenerational persistence in income ranks. They overestimate economic prospects for children from rich families and underestimate economic prospects for those from poor families.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)13909-13914
    Number of pages6
    JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
    Issue number28
    StatePublished - 2019


    • Equality of opportunity
    • Intergenerational mobility
    • Mobility optimism
    • Public perception
    • Rank–rank relationship

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • General


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