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Sons of low-income parents are more likely to grow up to be poor than daughters

November 30, 2016

Children of low-income parents are more likely than not to grow up to be low-income adults. This is true for both boys and girls, but more so for boys.


(Click on the image to enlarge.)

This figure shows the rankings of children from low-income Canadian families, what fraction stand on each of the 100 rungs defined to equally divide the population across their adult income distribution. Their parents stood on exactly the bottom 5th rung of their income ladder, and the likelihood of them not advancing very much or even falling lower is clearly evident.

If adult incomes were completely independent of family income background, then we would expect 1 percent of these children to be on each of the 100 divisions of their income distribution. If this were the case children of low-ranking parents would be as likely to rise to middle incomes, or even to the very top, as they would be to stay on the same rung as their parents, or fall lower.

But in fact, this cohort of Canadians (those born in the 1960s) are much more likely to be the low-ranking adults of the next generation and are more likely to repeat the experiences of their parents.

This inter-generational cycle of low-income is more likely for boys. Although there is considerable upward rank mobility among these children, men raised by parents who were outranked by 95 percent of their counterparts are most likely to fall even lower, to be outranked by 99 percent of their cohort. Their chances of falling to the bottom 1 percent are more than 4 percent.

They are most likely to remain in the bottom 10 percent of the income distribution. Although an intergenerational cycle of low-income is also the most likely outcome for women, the chances are significantly lower, hovering in the neighbourhood of 2 percent for each of the rungs up to about the 10th.

[ This post is an edited excerpt from a forthcoming paper I have written called “‘Inequality is the root of social evil,’ or maybe not? Two stories about inequality and public policy”, which is published in the December 2016 issue of Canadian Public Policy. If you have any feedback please feel free to let me know in the comments section. ]

  1. Perhaps it’s an indication that poor girls can at least marry ‘up’ financially if they can’t work their way up. For poor boys/men, that’s less likely an option. Women rarely marry ‘down’.

    • Yes, that is certainly a possibility in these data. Income is defined as the total income of both partners in the household, so family dynamics can play a role in determining outcomes.

  2. Dhanayshar Mahabir. permalink

    Miles, this finding is an eye opener for me as it indicates that poverty can indeed be inherited. How the top 1% reached its position is as important a line of inquiry as why does the bottom 1% remain in its unacceptable place. Males in the top 1% seem to avoid the mobility barriers that constrain the males at the other end. Why? It cannot be for lack of opportunity. Access to education to a certain point is made available to all. It has to be then the ability to process this access , and become more productive as a result. Why does the last 1% or even bottom 20 % of males seem to have this difficulty . Lack of Discipline may be a reason ….if so schools may focus on helping young at risk males in organizing their time to maximize the education outcome. IQ may be an issue hence the curriculum may be changed to cater to the natural abilities of the males. Here the test scores of such males in relation to their more wealthy peers may provide some evidence of both IQ and discipline. However most important in my mind is the de industrialization of much of North America. Where are the factory / manufacturing jobs which will allow the blue collar skilled males the opportunity to advance in his career to be plant supervisors? Are there programs in schools to train these males to become small business owners such as building contractors , landscapers etc. Are we placing too much attention in schools on the skills required of physics and chemistry and not looking at developing the multiple intelligences of others in the system. Once we address the stagnation of the bottom 20 % with appropriate policies , It may be that some members of this group will have the hope of reaching , some day during their working life , the top 1 %.

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