The decline in lifetime earnings mobility in the U.S.: Evidence from survey-linked administrative data
Michael D. Carr, Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts-Boston
Emily E. Wiemers, Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts-Boston
UPDATED VERSION: Posted September 7, 2016
There is a sizable literature that examines whether intergenerational mobility has declined as inequality has increased. This literature is motivated by a desire to understand whether increasing inequality has made it more difficult to rise from humble origins. An equally important component of economic mobility is the ability to move across the earnings distribution during one’s own working years. We use survey-linked administrative data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation to examine trends in lifetime earnings mobility since 1981. These unique data allow us to produce the first estimates of lifetime earnings mobility from administrative earnings across gender and education subgroups. In contrast to much of the existing literature, we find that lifetime earnings mobility has declined since the early 1980s as inequality has increased. Declines in lifetime earnings mobility are largest for college-educated workers though mobility has declined for men and women and across the distribution of educational attainment. One striking feature is the decline in upward mobility among middle-class workers, even those with a college degree. Across the distribution of educational attainment, the likelihood of moving to the top deciles of the earnings distribution for workers who start their career in the middle of the earnings distribution has declined by approximately 20% since the early 1980s.