America is often called the land of opportunity, and that class mobility has long been a popular tenet of American culture. But the reality is that many children who grow up poor remain poor as adults. In addition, mobility is not always upward, particularly for black children raised in middle-class families who often find themselves in lower income ranks as adults. The Figure, from the forthcoming State of Working America Web site, shows the percent of children in each income group – from the bottom 20% to the top 20% – who remained in or moved into the bottom 20% as adults. Each set of columns represents the income group in which the children were raised; the percentages attached to these columns show the portion of those children who were in the poorest income group as adults. As the first set of columns in the Figure shows, close to one-third of all white children and more than half of all African American children who were raised in the bottom income fifth stayed there as adults. The second set of columns shows that 20% of white children and 48% of black children raised in the second-to-lowest income group, were in the lowest income group as adults.
In addition to showing limited upward mobility, the figure, which is based on 2008 data, shows significant backsliding by African American children. Among those who were raised in the middle-income group, some 45% of African American children moved to the poorest group as adults, compared with 16% of white children.