U.S. Markets closed

What's Keeping U.S. Children Out of the Middle Class?

Derek Thompson

What does it mean to be "middle class," and what does it take to get there?

A new study from Brookings tries to answer both questions. The authors, Isabell Sawhill and Scott Winship, created a roadmap of the middle-class lifestyle with six benchmarks for each life stage. Children are considered on track for a middle class life if they are graduating from high school with a GPA above 2.5, for example, or earning a college degree by 29. Here are all six benchmarks.

Screen Shot 2012-09-20 at 6.44.40 PM.png

Rich children are twice as likely to be middle class -- i.e. earning 300% of the poverty level by 40, the authors found. "The chance that a child born into a family in the top income quintile will end up in one of the top three quintiles by the time they are in their forties is 82 percent," they write, "while the chance for a child born into a family in the bottom quintile is only 30 percent." (The report also includes a really sober and enlightening explanation for why women, who are more likely to graduate high school and college, still fall behind men in late-career earnings.)

How do the bottom 20% and top 20% fare in meeting the middle-class benchmarks? The graph below shows the sharp difference. In particular, the dip in the third column, at age 19, suggests that low-income children are at high risk to drop out of high school or be convicted of a crime.

Screen Shot 2012-09-20 at 6.45.04 PM.png

Here's another look at the life benchmarks -- this time broken down by race instead of income. Black children are 18% less likely than white children to have acceptable pre-reading and math skills. But between 19 and 29, they have fallen so behind in high school and college graduation rates and earnings that they reach the Brookings middle-class benchmark at less than half the rate of whites. This is a theme of the report: It is difficult, but not impossible, for Americans to make up disadvantages from early childhood. High-income parents are more likely to put their children on a path to the middle class from an early age.

Screen Shot 2012-09-20 at 6.45.34 PM.png

Personal responsibility has become a theme of the presidential campaign. It is in the candidates' interest to paint their opponent as either a free-market radical or a big government socialist, but between the poles, there's the messy reality of responsibility being shared by government and families to provide opportunities for low-income families to get on the path to the middle class -- especially since it's between the ages of 4 and 22 when both family and government interventions in health and education make the biggest difference. Head Start is a public program. But the choice to enroll your child in preschool is private. Medicaid is a public program. But the choice to sign you child up for preventative care is private. Government can offer loans and grants for college attendees. But the choice to drop out of college is utterly private. Asking families to take responsibility for their lives and providing strong public services aren't in tension. Instead, the authors suggest, both are necessary to bringing more children into the middle class.

More From The Atlantic