Lately, it seems that every new study about social mobility further corrodes the story Americans tell themselves about meritocracy; each one provides more evidence that comfortable lives are reserved for the winners of what sociologists call the birth lottery. But, recently, there have been suggestions that the birth lottery’s outcomes can be manipulated even after the fluttering ping-pong balls of inequality have been drawn.
What appears to matter—a lot—is environment, and that’s something that can be controlled. For example, one study out of Harvard found that moving poor families into better neighborhoods greatly increased the chances that children would escape poverty when they grew up.
While it’s well documented that the children of the wealthy tend to grow up to be wealthy, researchers are still at work on how and why that happens. Perhaps they grow up to be rich because they genetically inherit certain skills and preferences, such as a tendency to tuck away money into savings. Or perhaps it’s mostly because wealthier parents invest more in their children’s education and help them get well-paid jobs. Is it more nature, or more nurture?
A new paper from economists at the University of Texas at Austin, University College Dublin, and Lund University (in Sweden) offers an answer. They looked at the adult net worth of adopted Swedes born in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, and then compared those figures to the net worths of both their biological and adoptive parents. (In mid-century Sweden, all adoptions were arranged through the state, so the country has data on everyone involved, which is not out of character for a nation with a Förmögenhetsregistret, or wealth register, which tracks the assets of all its citizens.)