Data, published in the RSF volume From Parents to Children: The Intergenerational Transmission of Advantage, provides alarming evidence that more needs to be done to provide children from disadvantaged backgrounds an equal chance in life. 

The U.S. has the least intergenerational mobility and the least equal opportunity for children to advance, according to a landmark study on economic mobility that surveyed ten advanced countries.

To compare the effects of inequality on economic mobility in different countries, roughly 40 researchers investigated how children from different family backgrounds performed in a range of areas, including educational attainment, economic status and health, as they grew older.

They then compared results among ten countries—the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Australia, Finland, Denmark and Canada—to see how private and public institutions can affect opportunities for individuals born into families with different levels of income.

The key findings include:

  • Family background begins affecting children early in life. In no country did children from high- and low-socioeconomic (SES) backgrounds start out equally prepared for schooling, in terms of cognitive abilities and social behavior. Higher-SES children were consistently better prepared for formal education.
  • In the United States, there is a stronger link between parental education and children’s economic, educational, and socio-emotional outcomes than in any country investigated. In other words, children with richer parents enjoy a major advantage over poorer classmates both in school and later in life when they enter the labor market.
  • Preschool can make a difference. In France and Denmark, preschool helped children succeed in school and secure higher wages in the labor market later in life. In France, having attended preschool for two and three years, rather than one year, increased participants’ monthly wages by 3.2 percent and 3.6 percent respectively when they entered the labor market.
  • Education systems do not significantly reduce the relationship between parental socioeconomic status and child achievement. The evidence demonstrates that differences in child outcomes early in life continue up to university age and likely beyond. These findings suggest that if public investments are to have much of a chance to reduce the effects of inequality on mobility, they will need to be made early in children’s development.
The survey was supported by the Russell Sage Foundation, the Pew Economic Mobility Project and the Sutton Trust.
For more information on these studies, contact David Haproff, director of communications at Russell Sage, at (212) 750-6037 or You can alsoread the first chapter of From Parents to Children for free, or this Pew research brief, which summarizes the data.