Social Mobility

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe how inequality of opportunity is measured through life chances and standard of living
  • Describe types of social mobility

Life Chances

Max Weber’s conceptualization of social class examines class, status, and power. We know by now that all societies have a mechanism to rank, or stratify, its members and that this stratification is unequal in terms of rewards and benefits. Weber used the term life chances (Lebenschancen in German) to describe the opportunities to increase one’s position in the social class structure. Categories that affect life chances include the social class one is born into, geographic location, family ancestry, race, ethnicity, age, and gender.

Consider the life chances of a child born in Syria today. Syria is one of the most violent countries in the world, and millions of Syrians have been displaced or are refugees seeking asylum in other countries. What kinds of life chances are afforded to Syrian children? 

Consider the life chances of a child born into the Kennedy family in Massachusetts, which has been called “America’s top dynasty” [1] versus the life chances of a child born to a poor family in Mississippi. The Kennedy child is born into class, status, and power, having a U.S. President, three U.S. Senators, four U.S. Representatives, and one U.S. Cabinet member within his or her extended family. This boy or girl will attend elite private boarding schools, will travel the world, and will be exposed to possibilities largely unknown to his or her counterpart in Mississippi. Now imagine that the child born in Mississippi is African-American and has ancestors who were sharecroppers that lived under Jim Crow Laws, and whose more recent forebearers struggled through the Civil Rights Movement. This child will likely attend underfunded public schools and watch his or her parents struggle economically to find sustainable work and obtain health care. More than likely, he or she will experience racism from a very young age. 

Watch It

Watch this video to see how things such as class, status, race, and geography shape life chances. Social stratification affects a wide range of life chances, including things like parenting, educational attainment, and health.

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Social Mobility

People are often inspired and amazed at people’s ability to overcome extremely difficult upbringings. Mariano Rivera, acknowledged to be the best relief pitcher in history, made a baseball glove out of cardboard and tape because his family could not afford a real one. Alice Coachman grew up with few resources and was denied access to training facilities because of her race; she ran barefoot and built her own high jump equipment before becoming the first Black athlete (and one of the first American track and field athletes) to win an Olympic Gold. Pelé, perhaps the most transformative figure in soccer, learned the game while using a rag-stuffed sock for a ball. These are some of the stories told in documentaries or biographies meant to inspire and share the challenges of unequal upbringings. Relative to the overall population, the number of people who rise from poverty to become very successful is small, and the number that become wealthy is even smaller. Systemic barriers like unequal education, discrimination, and lack of opportunity can slow or diminish one’s ability to move up. Still, people who earn a college degree, get a job promotion, or marry someone with a good income may move up socially.

Social mobility refers to the ability of individuals to change positions within a social stratification system. When people improve or diminish their economic status in a way that affects social class, they experience social mobility. Individuals can experience upward or downward social mobility for a variety of reasons. Upward mobility refers to an increase—or upward shift—when they move from a lower to a higher socioeconomical class. In contrast, individuals experience downward mobility when they move from higher socioeconomic class to a lower one. Some people move downward because of business setbacks, unemployment, or illness. Dropping out of school, losing a job, or getting a divorce may result in a loss of income or status and, therefore, downward social mobility.

It is not uncommon for different generations of a family to belong to varying social classes. This is known as intergenerational mobility. For example, an upper-class executive may have parents who belonged to the middle class. In turn, those parents may have been raised in the lower class. Patterns of intergenerational mobility can reflect long-term societal changes.

On the other hand, intragenerational mobility refers to changes in a person’s social mobility over the course of their lifetime. For example, the wealth and prestige experienced by one person may be quite different from that of their siblings.

Structural mobility happens when societal changes enable a whole group of people to move up or down the social class ladder. Structural mobility is attributable to changes in society as a whole. In the first half of the twentieth century, industrialization expanded the U.S. economy, raising the standard of living and leading to upward structural mobility for almost everyone. In the decade and a half of the twenty-first century, recessions and the outsourcing of jobs overseas have contributed to the withdrawal of Americans from the workforce (BLS 2021). Many people experienced economic setbacks, creating a wave of downward structural mobility.

When analyzing the trends and movements in social mobility, sociologists consider all modes of mobility. Scholars recognize that mobility is not as common or easy to achieve as many people think.

The Stratification of Socioeconomic Classes

In the last century, the United States has seen a steady rise in its standard of living, the level of wealth available to acquire the material necessities and comforts to maintain a specific lifestyle. The country’s standard of living is based on factors such as income, employment, class, literacy rates, mortality rates, poverty rates, and housing affordability. A country with a high standard of living will often reflect a high quality of life, which in the United States means residents can afford a home, own a car, and take vacations. Ultimately, standard of living is shaped by the wealth and distribution of wealth in a country and the expectations its citizens have for their lifestyle.

Wealth is not evenly distributed in most countries. In the United States, a small portion of the population has the means to the highest standard of living. The wealthiest one percent of the population holds one-third of our nation’s wealth while the bottom 50 percent of Americans hold only 2 percent. Those in-between, the top 50 to 90 percent hold almost two-thirds of the nation’s wealth (The Federal Reserve, 2021).

Many people think of the United States as a “middle-class society.” They think a few people are rich, a few are poor, and most are fairly well off, existing in the middle of the social strata. Rising from lower classes into the middle-class is to achieve the American Dream. For this reason, scholars are particularly worried by the shrinking of the middle class. Although the middle class is still significantly larger than the lower and upper classes, it shrank from 69 percen in 1971 to 51 percent in 2020. argue the most significant threat to the U.S.’s relatively high standard of living is the decline of the middle class. The wealth of the middle class has also been declining in recent decades. Its share of the wealth fell from 32 percent in 1983 to 16 percent in 2016 (Horowitz, Igielnik, & Kochhar 2020).

People with wealth often receive the most and best schooling, access better health care, and consume the most goods and services. In addition, wealthy people also wield decision-making power over their daily life because money gives them access to better resources. By contrasts, many lower-income individuals receive less education and inadequate health care and have less influence over the circumstances of their everyday lives.

Additionally, tens of millions of women and men struggle to pay rent, buy food, find work, and afford basic medical care. Women who are single heads of household tend to have a lower income and lower standard of living than their married or single male counterparts. This is a worldwide phenomenon known as the feminization of poverty—which acknowledges that women disproportionately make up the majority of individuals in poverty across the globe and have a lower standard of living. In the United States, women make up approximately 56 percent of Americans living in poverty. One reason for this difference is the struggle of single mothers to provide for their children. One in four unmarried mother lives in poverty (Bleiweis, 2020). The wage gap, discussed extensively in the Work and the Economy chapter, also contributes to the gender-disparity in poverty.

In the United States, poverty is most often referred to as a relative rather than extreme measurement. Extreme poverty is an economic condition in which a family or individual cannot afford basic necessities, such as food and shelter, so that day-to-day survival is in jeopardy. Relative poverty is an economic condition in which a family or individuals have 50% income less than the average median income. This income is sometimes called the poverty level or the poverty line. In 2021, for example, the poverty for a single individual was set at $12,880 for one individual, $17,420 for a couple, and $26,500 for a family of four (ASPE 2021).

As a wealthy developed country, the United States invests in resources to provide the basic necessities to those in need through a series of federal and state social welfare programs. These programs provide food, medical, and cash assistance. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) provides cash assistance. The goal of TANF is to help families with children achieve economic self-sufficiency. Adults who receive assistance must fall under a specific income level, usually half the poverty level, set by the state. TANF funding goes to childcare, support for parents who are working or training a required number of hours a week, and other services. TANF is time-limited. Most states only provide assistance for a maximum of 5 years (CBPP).

One of the best-known programs is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), administered by the United States Department of Agriculture and formerly known as the Food Stamp Program. This program began in the Great Depression, when unmarketable or surplus food was distributed to the hungry. It was not formalized until 1961, when President John F. Kennedy initiated a food stamp pilot program. His successor Lyndon B. Johnson was instrumental in the passage of the Food Stamp Act in 1964. In 1965, more than 500,000 individuals received food assistance. During the height of the pandemic in 2020, participation reached 43 million people.

Watch It

Watch this video to learn more about social mobility. The video highlights research that began in 1982 by Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle, and Linda Olson. They followed 800 first grade students in Baltimore for twenty five years and examined the impact their socioeconomic status had throughout their lives.

Try It

Think It Over

  • Track the social stratification of your family tree. Did the social standing of your parents differ from the social standing of your grandparents and great-grandparents? Does your class differ from your social standing, and, if so, how? What aspects of your societal situation establish you in a social class?
  • How does the longitudinal research conducted by Alexander and Entwisle help us understand the “long shadow of poverty,” particularly among racial minorities?


downward mobility:
a lowering of one’s social class
feminization of poverty:
the high and rising percentage of women who bear the burden of poverty across the globe
intergenerational mobility:
a difference in social class between different generations of a family
intragenerational mobility:
a difference in social class between different members of the same generation
life chances:
opportunities for an individual to improve his or her quality of life
social mobility:
the ability to change positions within a social stratification system
structural mobility:
a societal change that enables a whole group of people to move up or down the class ladder
upward mobility:
an increase—or upward shift—in social class


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