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How an escalator explains "absolute" versus "relative" economic mobility in America

Jul 19, 2012

Here's a bit more information to help explain yesterday's story Five facts about achieving the American Dream. We've gotten some comments from listeners about how to interpret our five facts, and one of the biggest areas of confusion concerns the distinction between "absolute" and "relative" measures economic mobility. 

Both of these measures are important to understanding the American Dream, but each measure tells a different story about whether people are able to achieve the Dream. And those stories are in conflict. In absolute terms, most Americans make more money than their parents. In relative terms, people at the bottom of the economic ladder are less likely to move up (these are Fact #2 and Fact #3 from yesterday's story). 

I'll admit, when I first started researching economic mobility, I also struggled with understanding "absolute" vs. "relative" mobility. So I wanted to share a video from the Pew Economic Mobility Project that helped explain it for me: