Report: It's Better to Be a Poor Student in Almost Any Rich Country but the U.S.

Americans like to think of our country as a place where anybody, no matter how poor they're born, can make something of themselves with enough hard work. But as far as rich nations go, the United States scores pretty wretchedly on measures of "economic mobility" -- how likely children are to be wealthier than their parents -- falling below countries such as Denmark, Australia, Spain, France, and Norway, among others. 

The OECD's latest report on education across the developed world offers us one potential explanation for why. We have glaring lack of "educational mobility." In the U.S., if you're born to parents who didn't make it far through school, chances are you won't either. Per the report:

In Italy, Portugal, Turkey and the United States, young people from families with low levels of education have the least chance of attaining a higher level of education than their parents. In these countries, more than 40% of these young people have not completed upper secondary education, and fewer than 20% have made it to tertiary education.

A diploma predicts potential earnings power. And so it shouldn't be surprising that many of the countries that beat us on economic mobility also beat us on educational mobility. This first chart shows children born to parents who didn't graduate from college. Those to the lower left are more likely to drop out of high school less likely to get a higher degree. Those to the top right are most likely to finish college and exceed their parents' education. Notice the United States in the lower left and Australia, Sweden, Denmark and Canada in the top right.


There is a quirk with the OECD's data that needs to be mentioned: It doesn't count our associate's degree holders as college grads. Since community colleges are a stepping stone for the sons and daughters of so many low-income U.S. families, that means these stats may underestimate how much educational mobility actually exists here. But there are other signs we have a problem. 

First, there's this chart, which looks at the impact of socio-economic status on students' reading test scores, and the chances that they'll go to college. In countries sitting on the lower right-hand corner of the graph, including the U.S., low-income students with uneducated parents are pretty much doomed to do poorly in school. They also have only a small shot of ever even taking classes at a university. 


Finally, just as the United States has a very low level of upward mobility in its education system, it also has a shockingly high level of downward mobility. As this chart with the U.S. on the far right end shows, nearly as many children end up less educated than their parents (the striped bars) as end up more educated (the gray bar).OECD_Educational_Mobility_4.PNG

These facts don't necessarily explain our entire lack of economic mobility. Germany, for instance, scores just as poorly (if not worse) than the United States in all of these areas, yet children are still more likely to outearn their parents than in America. But it's hard to believe that our consistently poor performance on these measures doesn't play some role keeping families moving up in the world between generations. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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