Study: Income Inequality Is in Our Genes

You may think you’re the master of your fate, but social mobility is pretty much a myth.


Beating the Bushes? Unlikely.

America! What a country! Where else could the son of a Kansan woman named Stanley and a bigamist Kenyan alcoholic wind up as president, right?

Hold on, Malia and Sasha. Don’t count on any dynasty-founding just yet.

Based on the results of a new study, it turns out the experiences of the Bush family — generation after generation of Yalies, industrial titans, senators, governors, presidents and hottie-totties — are a lot more the norm than the up-by-their-bootstraps American success tale (tail?) we all find so endearing. As UC Davis economics professor Gregory Clark, one of those who performed the study, explains in the New York Times’s “Great Divide” series on inequality, “To a striking extent, your overall life chances can be predicted not just from your parents’ status but also from your great-great-great-grandparents’.” In other words, if your dad’s dad’s dad’s dad was a shoemaker, you’re far more likely to work at Foot Locker today than to be rubbing shoulders with Rockefellers and Vanderbilts at a Princeton eating club, need-blind admissions and guaranteed financial aid be damned.

This sounds not just unfair, but appalling. What about hard work? What about true grit? Alas, writes Clark, “the compulsion to strive, the talent to prosper and the ability to overcome failure are strongly inherited.” Those at the bottom of the social scale and those at the top do both move gradually toward the middle-class mean. What this research showed, though, is that the pace of such movement is glacial — taking place across some 10 to 15 generations, or 300 to 450 years, rather than at a Great Gatsby-ian rate.

The researchers worked by selecting surnames that were linked to high and low status. High-class American names came from descendants of Ivy Leaguers who’d graduated by 1850, very rich folks with oddball names back in the 1920s (when tax records were publicly available), and Ashkenazi Jews; low-status names were those associated with blacks whose ancestors were likely slaves, or of descendants of French colonists who came here prior to the American Revolution. Researchers then combed through years’ worth of records of licensed doctors and attorneys.

Granted, as of the 1970s, the number of blacks in the elite ranks started to rise, while the number of Ashkenazi Jews, who were overrepresented earlier in the century, started to decline. But the change is, Clark writes, “very slow. At the current rate … it will be 300 years before Ashkenazi Jews cease to be overrepresented among American doctors, and even 200 years from now the descendants of enslaved African-Americans will still be underrepresented.” Amy Chua not withstanding, the researchers found no evidence that any particular racial groups outperformed others across the board.

In similar surname surveys going back centuries in seven other countries — India, China, Sweden, Chile, England, Japan and South Korea — the same results held: “Across all of them, rare or distinctive surnames associated with elite families many generations ago are still disproportionately represented among today’s elites.” In England, “If your surname is rare, and someone with that surname attended Oxford or Cambridge around 1800, your odds of being enrolled at those universities are nearly four times greater than the average person” — despite public financing of university education and less classist admissions at those schools. In China, social status remains firmly entrenched “even after a Communist revolution nearly unparalleled in ferocity, class hatred and mass displacement.”

So what’s at work here? Sweden has poured money into egalitarian education without making a dent in social mobility. And in studies of adopted children, it’s the status of their biological families — not those they grow up in — that correlates with their income and educational status as adults. Clark’s conclusion? “[G]enetics is the main carrier of social status.”

Clark points out that while this apparent “genetic transmission of … some mysterious mix of drive and ability” seems patently unfair, it’s a double-edged sword. Sure, the fact that your three-times-Great-Grandpappy was a ragin’ Cajun may be dooming your chances of joining the Union League. But take heart: All the Mandarin Chinese lessons, snooty preschools and summers at fancy camps being lavished by nouveau Main Liners on their kids won’t keep those offspring on top. When we look at income inequality, it may be best to do so with the sort of eye always cultivated by Biddles, Cadwaladers and Strawbridges — one oriented toward the long, long, long term.

Follow @SandyHingston on Twitter.

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  • Dan

    Yeah the author totally missed the point of the study. People aren’t staying poor because they genetically are predisposed to being poor. That is a stupid interpretation of all the factors in play in our society. Social mobility has a lot to do with economic systems and sharing of newly created wealth. Since so much of newly created wealth in the US comes from earning interest (i.e., poor and middle-class borrow in excess of $50k or $100k to get a bachelors degree while rich kids usually pay out of pocket). In this case, a large chunk of a poor/middle class graduate’s income goes to servicing the interest on said debt, leaving little to actually accumulate and build with. If you are born rich, you probably spend your whole life earning compound interest while most of the rest actually PAY interest. This is just one example of why social mobility is non-existent. The author makes an unfair presumption that our society is just and right in operating like this, without ever debating the actual problems for most people. And no, genetics are not the problem. Ignorance and greed are.

    • Sandy Hingston

      I did NOT miss the point of the study. Read the link to the Great Divide piece–written by one of the study’s authors–before you spout off.

      • Matt Ruben

        Sandy, you are correct that you did not miss the point of the study: You accurately summarized/reported on the Great Divide piece.

        I haven’t read the underlying study (yet), but based on the Great Divide piece, this is a complete load of BS. The idea of “regression to the mean” in 200-300 years proves that the genetic explanation is total bunk. Unique genetic markers for drive and success, if they existed, wouldn’t be “bred out” of families in a mere couple of centuries. It would take much, much longer.

        Moreover, the author’s assumptions about what defines “elite” status are themselves socially constructed and arbitrary – shifting even over the course of his short opinion piece. Is it having more money? Yes (Sweden example), but also no (also the Sweden example).

        And there appears to be nary a thought that the reason people with unique surnames might be wealthier or more elite is precisely because there are fewer of them: People named Andersson in Sweden (or I guess Jones in the U.S.) are going to belong to wealthy families and poor ones; elite ones and common ones. They’re going to be “average” because their sheer numbers will “spread them out” across the society. Unique surnames belonging to elite families will by default remain elite – monetarily, or socially, or sometimes both – unless something specific in the society shifts to make large numbers of them lose their positions.

        So this study is, to put it bluntly, plain stupid. It’s nearly word-for-word what Eugenics founder Francis Galton was saying in the 1800s – and it makes the same dumb, tragic mistake he makes,

  • dagbat

    There may be something to this but most old wealth eventually turns over and expires after several generations. Perhaps the wealth gene for each subsequent generation weakens due to an overabundance of affluence leading to laziness and decadence. America’s top 1% wealthiest listing is primarily made up of newer money. Entrepreneurs who have become immensely rich. The interesting thing is that these uber rich new money newcomers can drop off the list just as quickly as they came on. In other words the top 1% is always in a state of flux and not the same people year to year. This is why the current demonization of the top 1% as those greedy sob’s who are stealing all the wealth from the rest of us is a lie, but it sells books, movies, gets politicians elected, and justifies more and more power going to the federal government which then promises to dissipate this income inequality evilness that is raping the rest of the country. It is a wonderful Ponzi scheme. We give our votes to the politicians who we think will help us, and the politicians then go through the motions but get nothing accomplished except themselves getting more powerful and rich, and the cycle keeps repeating itself year after year. It is amazing how Americans have been so conditioned to no longer look or care if things are really getting better, staying the same, or slowly getting worse. Sadly I think we all have drunk the Kool-Aid.

  • Captain Obvious

    There are two factors that are dispositive determinants of ones economic status at retirement age: drive and decision-making ability.

    Also impactful, but less so, are natural talent, tolerance for discomfort, and educational opportunity.

  • Richard Slick

    Early in the twentieth century some novelists came under the sway of Darwin. Others came under the sway of Marx. These writers were the literary naturalists. Some of the biological determinists were Frank Norris (McTeague) and Sherwin Anderson (Winesburg Ohio). The economic determinists were Theodore Dreiser (Sister Carrie) and Stephen Crane (Maggie a Girl of the Streets) These influences combined under the current subject of income inequality. Regression to the mean, as Hingston states, is probably “glacial” not precipitous as many progressives would prefer. These findings may knock neoliberalism into a cocked hat, so to speak.

  • kimada

    Isn’t it more likely the networking and socialization that does it? Or is at least as important as the genetics? Plus, people’s status or lack thereof is in itself a facade so who cares if it has any legitimacy. In fact it’s kind of frivolous. Oh wait, I almost forgot – frivolity rules humanity these days (maybe always has).

    • Sandy Hingston

      The study authors say they controlled for such factors:
      ” Alternative explanations that are in vogue — cultural traits, family economic resources, social networks — don’t hold up to scrutiny.”

  • Anonymous

    The nature vs. nurture debate has gone on for years and is quite mundane at this point. Some feel that our genes are the sole determinant of the outcome of one’s life while others feel that only through the utilizing the resources within the right environment can we fully reach our potential. Clearly both views are centered on one extreme of the spectrum.

    Both are separate entities that interact with each other frequently. Nature may not be susceptible to change but it can be forced to change over time by the influence of the environment. Likewise, the environment (nurture) can select the traits that are adaptive and discourage expression of maladaptive traits over time. Therefore, it is through an interaction with the environment can we push our genetic potential to the limit.

    This article is extremely pessimistic and you have to realize that there are ALWAYS limitations within a study, hence the term REsearch. This does not hold true for everyone. Our genes may glorify and condemn us, but we must always find ways to succeed in spite of such difficulties. Yes, it isn’t fair that others have it better than us but I believe that at one point if they are too pretentious about it, the genes will fall apart in future generations through reproduction with a mate that does not have the best genes.

    And with this whole genetic engineering designer baby BS, scientists know better than to toy with nature because they can create diseases and conditions that they never even knew could exist, so be careful.