NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Income Inequality, Social Mobility, and the Decision to Drop Out of High School

Melissa S. Kearney, Phillip B. Levine

NBER Working Paper No. 20195
Issued in June 2014
NBER Program(s):   CH   LS

This paper considers the role that high levels of income inequality and low rates of social mobility play in driving the educational attainment of youth in low-income households in the United States. Using high school degree status from five individual-level surveys, our analysis reveals that low-socioeconomic status (SES) students, and particularly boys, who grow up in locations with greater levels of lower-tail income inequality and lower levels of social mobility are relatively more likely to drop out of high school, conditional on other individual characteristics and contextual factors. The data indicate that this relationship does not reflect alternative characteristics of the place, such as poverty concentration, residential segregation, or public school financing. We propose that the results are consistent with a class of explanations that emphasize a role for perceptions of one's own identity, position in society, or chances of success. In the end, our empirical results indicate that high levels of lower-tail income inequality and low levels of social mobility hinder educational advancement for disadvantaged youth.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w20195

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