Equality of opportunity the idea that everyone should have the same chance at success, regardless of family background has long been a bedrock American belief. Yet, as economic inequality has increased over the last several decades, it has become harder for many to climb the economic ladder. This issue of RSF, edited by Katharine Bradbury and Robert K. Triest of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, brings together a distinguished group of the nation's leading social scientists to examine the extent of and the barriers to opportunity that exist today.
Several contributors investigate how rising inequality in parental investments in children, lack of public resources for low-income families, and the high cost of postsecondary education limit the futures of many. Janet L. Yellen, Chair of the Federal Reserve Board, reviews trends in income and wealth inequality since the 1980s and shows how lack of access to key resources such as high-quality childhood education, affordable college, private business ownership, and inheritances for those in the lower half of the wealth distribution has significantly restricted economic opportunity in the U.S. Isabel Sawhill and Richard Reeves find that the socioeconomic status of one's parents strongly predicts where one will end up on the income ladder as an adult, particularly for those at the very bottom and top of the income distribution. Timothy Smeeding shows that black men, children of never-married mothers, and children of parents lacking high school diplomas are likely to both begin life in the bottom quartile of the income distribution and remain there as adults.
Other contributors explore how inequality of opportunity begins in childhood, where family conditions and neighborhood quality influence children's life outcomes. Katherine Magnuson and Greg Duncan show that even prior to kindergarten, low-income children lag behind their affluent peers in math and reading skills, in part because they lack access to high-quality preschool education. Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane find that affluent children's advantages are further amplified during their school years, in part because their parents invest more time and resources in their educational and extra-curricular activities. They also show that increased residential segregation has led to higher concentrations of children with behavioral problems in low-income areas, which negatively affects their classmates' ability to learn. Patrick Sharkey reviews research on the correlation between child neighborhood conditions and adult economic outcomes and confirms that the longer low-income children reside in bad neighborhoods, the more their disadvantages are compounded.
This issue of RSF offers new insights into how, despite our persistent belief in the American Dream, economic opportunity and mobility have stagnated for a growing number of citizens.