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.