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

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

A new study from Brookings tries valiantly to answer both questions. The authors, Isabell Sawhill and Scott Winship, start with a road map of the middle-class lifestyle. They name six benchmarks, one for each life stage from family formation and birth to adulthood. Children are considered on track for a middle class life if (for example) they are graduating from high school by 19 with a GPA above 2.5 or earning a college degree by 29. Here are all six benchmarks.

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Rich children are twice as likely to make it to the middle class -- i.e. earning 300% of the poverty level by 40. "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? The graph below shows how sharply the road to the middle class diverges from a young age. But 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.

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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 are 50% less likely to meet that middle-class benchmark than whites. This is a theme of the report: It is difficult, but not impossible, for Americans to make up for 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.

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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.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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