We like to think of the United States as the type of place where anyone with a strong work ethic and healthy dose of ambition can make it to the top.
A better predictor seems to be whether Mom and Dad have a college degree.
Researchers from the Russell Sage Foundation and the Pew Economic Mobility Project have found that American kids are much more likely to succeed if their parents are more educated.
What’s more, the relationship between your parents’ education level and your future success is higher in the United States than in any other countries they looked at, including Britain, France, Germany, Australia and Canada.
Erin Currier, project manager for Pew’s Economic Mobility Project, said that when polled, Americans say that hard work and ambition are the factors that get you ahead in life. They also believe things like parental background aren’t as important.
“All of our data shows the opposite,” Currier said. “It shows the power of family background for really predicting where in the income (distribution) you would fall.”
Currier said the group looked at parents’ education levels because people with more education tend to make more money and have other advantages. They saw it as a good proxy for socioeconomic status.
The opportunities to help kids get ahead start very early, with access to programs such as pre-kindergarten. Currier said the other countries in the study, which showed less correlation between parents’ education and kids’ success, have been more likely to offer broad support for those kinds of programs.
The United States also supports low-income families with programs like Head Start, and Currier said she sees this data as evidence that those programs can help less advantaged kids get ahead.
But the study also shows that the house you are born in – or at least the degree hanging on the wall – makes a difference from birth.
“It’s important even before pre-kindergarten,” she said. “Prenatally, we know there are advantages.”