Understanding America’s “glass floor”

Is America a meritocracy? A new study from Brookings suggests that class mobility doesn’t always have much to do with skills, intelligence, or talent.

“Affluence and poverty are both partially inherited,” a report from Richard V. Reeves and Kimberly Howard declares.

In “The Glass Floor: Education, Downward Mobility, and Opportunity Hoarding,” breaks down mobility– of lack thereof– in Americans households, showing that children raised in wealthy families are protecting from falling into poverty “even if they are only modestly skilled.” Likewise, children raised in low-income households face huge challenges in becoming upwardly mobile, despite skills and intelligence. This startling report flies in the face of the concept of an American meritocracy.

The findings (their words, my emphasis):

  1. Skills, as measured in adolescence by the Armed Forces Qualifying Test (AFQT) and coding speed, strongly predict the chances of being in a higher-income household as an adult.
  2. A sizable proportion (43%) of those who remain in a higher-income household are of modest skill, and would be expected on the basis of skill to fall.
  3. Getting a college degree is associated with a 23% greater chance of an adolescent of modest skills—i.e., predicted to fall—remaining in a higher-income household as an adult.
  4. Lower-income adolescents with the smarts and drive to get into the higher-income bracket have a 42% greater chance of making it if they have a college degree.

In other words, a college degree gives people who come from low-income households a shot at upward mobility, and a degree allows those from wealthier families to stay wealthy. They deem this form of economic inertia “the glass floor.”


via Brookings

There are likely many other factors contributing to any glass floor effects, which we were unable to investigate: social networks, school quality, neighborhood effects, and wealth transfers, among others. Evidence from other studies shows, for example, that wealthy parents are able to make regular transfers of capital to their children. These transfers are not sufficient in themselves to alter the cross-sectional income distribution. But they might have important effects on mobility by helping with key transitions, especially between school and college, or between college and the labor market.

Universal pre-k may help students get a leg up when it comes to school and testing. In addition, making sure that children of low-income households have a shot at college will get America one step closer to a true meritocracy.

The authors suggest that “Colleges ought to look hard, too, at programs or policies that risk favoring those of modest abilities because of their more affluent backgrounds: preferences for children of alumni, for example.”

 What do you think of the report? Share your thoughts with us.

About Holly

Holly Jensen is a writer and poet who has worked with nonprofits and businesses for over a decade. She also serves as editor of The Ghazal Page, an international literary journal.
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