Study: Most Americans Do Better Than Their Parents

The majority of this generation of adults is doing better than the one before it, a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts shows.

Eighty-four percent of adults have higher family incomes than their parents did at the same age. And when you look at those on the bottom and in the middle, the outlook is even better: 93 percent of Americans whose parents were in the bottom fifth of the income ladder and 88 percent of those in the middle fifth have a greater family income as adults.

Source: Pew Charitable Trusts

But when comparing the upward mobility of this generation of adults to their parents, race and education make a big difference.

Black Americans have a harder time exceeding their parents' family incomes than their white counterparts.

Two-thirds of blacks raised in the second-lowest quintile were able to surpass their parents' family income; 89 percent of whites born in the same level did. Just more than half of blacks raised at the bottom of the family income ladder remained there as adults, compared with only a third of whites in the same situation.

Source: Pew Charitable Trusts

More than half of blacks, 56 percent, raised in the middle fell to lower levels; only 32 percent of whites did the same.

A four-year college degree helps people on the bottom half of the family income ladder move up and prevents those raised in the top or middle from tumbling down the ladder, the study said.

That degree makes those raised on the bottom rung of the income ladder three times more likely to rise to the top.

The lack of a diploma can hinder one's ability to move up. Forty-seven percent of those raised in the bottom fifth of those without a degree get stuck there. Only 10 percent of those who do earn a degree remain similarly stuck.

A degree can also prevent those raised in the middle from falling to a lower rung. Almost 40 percent of those without a college degree fell from the middle, compared with 22 percent of those with a four-year degree.

Source: Pew Charitable Trusts

Forty percent of Americans born into a family in the top fifth of income earners are likely to stay there; 63 percent will remain above the middle. 

While many Americans as a whole do beat their parents in terms of family income, that increase is not always enough to move them up to the next rung on the income ladder.

Forty-three percent of Americans raised in the bottom fifth remain there as adults, and 70 percent stay stuck beneath the middle.

Only 4 percent of Americans live the "rags-to-riches" story, moving from the bottom fifth of income to the top.