Business, Economics and Jobs

The 6 steps to entering the middle class




Kyle Kim

BOSTON — High fives all around to the researchers at the Brookings Institution.

The Washington, D.C.-based think tank this week tackled a very important question: just how do people in America make it into the middle class?

It's a key question, of course, for the world's largest economy — particularly as this group has been struggling for the past two decades.

It's also a central question for GlobalPost's America the Gutted reporting project, which for the past 10 months has been investigating the long-term difficulties of the US middle class and how this economic trend is playing out around the world.

For its research, Brookings went to the root of the issue: children.

In a report titled "Pathways to the Middle Class: Balancing Personal and Public Responsibilities," Brookings asked why some children do better than others in eventually achieving middle class status.

And while there's some good news in here — 61 percent of Americans reach the middle class by middle age, Brookings says — the path is not equal for all. Moreover, the United States isn't comparing favorably around the world in this department:

"The reality is that economic success in America is not purely meritocratic," Brookings writes. "We don’t have as much equality of opportunity as we’d like to believe, and we have less mobility than some other developed countries. Although cross-national comparisons are not always reliable, the available data suggest that the U.S. compares unfavorably to Canada, the Nordic countries, and some other advanced countries. A recent study shows the U.S. ranking 27th out of 31 developed countries in measures of equal opportunity."

Most importantly, getting into America's middle class is easier if you've been born to the right parents. And it helps — a lot — if those parents are already rich.

Here's the money quote from the report:

"Children born into middle-income families have a roughly equal chance of moving up or down once they become adults, but those born into rich or poor families have a high probability of remaining rich or poor as adults. 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, while the chance for a child born into a family in the bottom quintile is only 30 percent. In short, a rich child in the U.S. is more than twice as likely as a poor child to end up in the middle class or above."

But there are steps that can be taken to increase these chances.

Brookings has identified six "benchmarks" to help predict whether a child will eventually reach middle class status (defined here as having family income 300 times greater than the poverty level, or $66,000 for a family of four).

Source: Brookings Institution Social Genome Project

Here's the breakdown:

1) Family formation: The trick here? Be born into a family with a "non-poor married mother," who has at least a high school diploma.

2) Early childhood: During early childhood, future middle-class you should acquire acceptable pre-reading and math chops. They also need to pick up "school appropriate" behaviors.

3) Middle childhood: Reading and math skills, as well as "social-emotional" skills, are a must.

4) Adolescence: Now graduate from high school with a grade point average above 2.5. And don't be convicted of a crime or become a parent. This isn't as easy as it sounds. Only a little more than half of Americans reach this benchmark, Brookings says.

5) Translation to adulthood: Live independently from your parents. And get a college degree.

6) Adulthood: If all goes well, you will have a family income that's at least 300 percent of the poverty level.