If you’re poor, playing by the rules can actually help you make it to the middle class – if you know what the rules are

by Ryan Streeter on December 14, 2011. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Isabell Sawhill is always worth reading. In a post yesterday she summarizes some of the older and newer research she and Brookings colleagues are doing on upward mobility among poorer Americans.

The conclusions are:

  • Playing by the rules helps you make it to middle class if you start out poor. It’s just that the rules involve finishing school, working full time, and not having kids until you’re married – rules that don’t get followed in too many lower-income communities.
  • If you navigate higher education as a low-income student, you do just as well financially as your peers who started out more affluent than you did.
  • Some inequality is good, but as it grows too much, the incentive to try hard to work, play by the rules, etc., is diminished.

Here are some relevant snippets:

[Ron Haskins and I] showed that if you did just three things—graduated from high school, worked full-time, and delayed childbearing until marriage—your chance of becoming middle class was 74 percent in 2007. By contrast, if you did only one or two of these things, your chances of joining the middle class dropped to 25 percent. We also argued that helping people climb the ladder by, for example, rewarding work was a more effective strategy than giving them unconditional assistance. And we noted that as the nation’s safety net moved away from providing welfare in the 1990s and toward making assistance conditional on work, employment rates among single mothers rose and poverty rates declined quite sharply…

More than two-fifths of the children of low-income parents end up with low incomes themselves. America, which prides itself on being a classless society, is not so classless after all…

In new research at Brookings we are finding that poor children who navigate the rungs of the ladder by doing well in school, avoiding risky behaviors, and getting a postsecondary degree or valuable training do just as well as their more advantaged peers…

Some inequality is a spur to greater effort to win society’s prizes. But when the rungs of the ladder become too far apart it becomes exceedingly difficult to climb the ladder. The result? Many people stop trying. Instead of a spur to greater effort, inequality becomes a scourge that leaves a growing heap of frustrated individuals at the bottom. The data on this relationship are quite clear.