Upward mobility, or the ability to move out of a lower income situation into the middle or top income class is a hot top in the U.S.  According to the New York Times, both political parties have argued recently that the odds of climbing the income ladder are lower today than in previous decades.

Drake, a popular rapper and hip hop artist, has a song, ‘Started from the Bottom’ , that (at least in spirit) embodies this debate.  His song, like the song’s title suggests, describes how he started at the bottom of the music industry and rose to the top over time.

A new study from the Equality of Opportunity Project finds that upward mobility has in fact not declined from previous decades like politicians suggest.  However, their study suggests that upward income mobility, unlike the experience of Drake, is difficulty for the average U.S. worker.  Overall, the author’s find that “…the [income] rungs of the [income] ladder have grown further apart (income inequality has increased), but children’s chances of climbing from lower to higher [income] rungs have not changed .”

The study’s authors, Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, Emmanuel Saez, and Nicholas Turner,  find that  contrary to popular perception, income mobility across generations have remained extremely stable for children born in the 1971-1993 time period.  For example, the authors find the probability that a child reaches the top fifth of the income distribution given that their parents were in the bottom fifth of the income distribution is 8.4% for children born in 1971, compared with 9.0% for those born in 1986.

Author’s find upward mobility chances have not changed over time

Their study, which is one of the largest in the nation, does however find that upward mobility in the U.S. is difficulty.  They find that upward mobility depends on a number of factors, such as geographical location, parent’s education, and family demographics.

For instance, the author’s study found that a person born into a San Jose, CA family that has income in the bottom 1/5 of workers  is 3x more likely than the same person born in Charlotte, NC to reach the top 1/5 of the income  distribution.

In short, the author’s study suggest that likelihood that the average person will rise from the bottom to the top, like the rapper Drake, may in fact be relatively small.

Side note: The project’s interactive data visualization tool is simply amazing. It allows you to see the impact of location on upward mobility probabilities by clicking on a map.