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Creating American Inequality

Who Gets Ahead? The Determinants of Economic Success in America

by Christopher Jencks and others
Basic Books, 397 pp., $17.50

Rules and Racial Equality

by Edwin Dorn
Yale University Press, 158 pp., $14.00

Small Futures

by Richard H. de Lone
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 258 pp., $12.95

The Credential Society: An Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification

by Randall Collins
Academic Press, 222 pp., $13.50

Current Population Reports, Series P-60 No. 120: Money Income and Poverty Status of Families and Persons in the United States

Bureau of the Census
USGPO, 39 pp., $2.00


When asked, “Are people equal?” we usually answer, “No.” For many on the right, innate differences attest to inequality. To many who see themselves as on the left, people are unequal because of the way they have been treated by society. The right sees inequality mainly as internal, as fixed in the human condition. Those on the more liberal side tend to view inequality largely as external, and amenable to remedy. Thus the right feels efforts toward equality can come to no good end. Leveling is inimical to nature and bound to be oppressive. The left would change the ways society is organized and believes such reforms would work.

However there are occasions where the two views intersect. One is “equality of opportunity,” which in America has been a conservative value as well as a progressive goal. Moreover, writers on the left seem to give inherited differences almost as much attention as conservatives do. The result is that while liberals, radicals, and socialists all favor greater equality, they have accepted certain assumptions which can undercut their aims. This is especially apparent in the books under review.

Christopher Jenck’s Who Gets Ahead? is a sequel to Inequality (1972) and must be read as such. So I will backtrack for a moment and recall that earlier volume.1 Inequality captured public attention because it had a social science “finding.” What Jencks and his collaborators found was that schooling in and of itself made only a minor contribution to individuals’ mobility. The key measurable factor was the status of their families. More money spent on schools wouldn’t shake up the social classes, or so Jencks’s data seemed to say. A further variable was “luck,” which really meant all the other elements social science couldn’t measure. Jencks cited several instances of how luck helps. For example, having “the ability to persuade a customer that he wants a larger car than he thought he wanted.” Or encountering “chance acquaintances who steer you to one line of work rather than another.”

But when we start to talk of “family background,” heredity and environment get intermingled. A phrase like “parental influence” implies elements of both. Many traits that make for success (Jencks’s central concern) might, if we accept his own analysis of the importance of heredity, come from combinations of genes going back for generations. The spirit revealed in a supersalesman may be sustained by an endocrine balance which is largely an inheritance from a hyperkinetic grandmother. While two brothers may seem to have had the same outward upbringing, we still know that no two siblings have identical home experiences. Even so, Jencks keeps returning to what he calls “genetic advantages.” Thus, according to Jencks, “the heritability of Stanford-Binet scores” runs to “around 45 percent.” Even if you aren’t your parents’ favorite child, you get your genes from them and that can be a help. Especially in a society that puts a premium on IQ.

Genetic inheritance has always appealed to conservatives, who invoke it without apology. Its latest expression is “sociobiology,” which states that as all species develop sets of gene pools during their emergence, the same should hold for identifiable groups of human beings. Jencks, who sees himself as a socialist, doesn’t want to explore this territory. For him genetic inheritance seems to operate randomly among families, but without regard for primordial ties some groups of families share. (How come that Russian Jews take so well to the violin?) Perhaps it is a hidden fear of the left that, on this count at least, the right could just be right.

In light of the “policy implications” of Inequality, Jencks was encouraged to go deeper into the data. The result is Who Gets Ahead? This time Jencks had eleven collaborators (four more than before) and, as he states in his introduction, grants of $300,000 from foundations and government agencies. His purpose was to review even more empirical studies, using bigger and better computers, in a final effort to answer the question in his current title.

Who Gets Ahead?, it should be said at the outset, is not a book for the general reader. In fact, despite its breezy title, it is not altogether clear that it is a book at all. Rather it is more a packet of research notes. What we are given are seemingly endless columns of statistical analysis including regression equations, mean deviations, and bivariate coefficients. Indeed, there are no actual numbers (e.g., how many miners’ sons become physicians) but rather mathematical notations. As with Inequality, Jencks did not send his coauthors out on interviews. All his computations come from other people’s research. Hence the reality he pictures is in fact a synthesis of the data in those studies.

Who Gets Ahead? revises some earlier estimates, owing to the wider data base provided by such studies as “National Longitudinal Survey of Older Men” and the “Kalamazoo Brothers Sample”—the latter being a study of 346 pairs of male Michigan siblings, tracing their careers over a forty-seven-year period. Inequality had said that “shared background characteristics” account for 32 percent of the variations in occupational levels. In other words, that was the correlation between the similar origins the people being surveyed shared and their ultimate employment. Who Gets Ahead? puts the figure at “more like 48 percent.” Family is apparently creeping up as a determining factor, almost overtaking luck (or is it pluck?). Education is also doing better. “The best readily observable predictor” of how much you will earn is now “amount of schooling.” However even with his larger study Jencks admits he and his collaborators “could not isolate any single personality characteristic that was critical to success.” At the same time, the phrase “genetic advantage,” used widely in Inequality, has been phased out in favor of “personal characteristics,” which has a less Jensen-like ring.

Has Jencks revised Jencks? As a social scientist, he runs with the coefficients; even if much of the data deals only with Kalamazoo. Schooling now seems to count, or at least completing college. But Jencks’s second thoughts go deeper. His early emphasis on individuals, he says, was basically misplaced. Little is gained by wondering why one sibling succeeds whereas another fails. More important are the “structural features of the economy” which decide how people get distributed among the income levels. Why particular persons get ahead is not nearly so significant as how many actually do, and how the places they occupy came to get created. Unfortunately Who Gets Ahead? has no data on these questions. So Jencks ends by calling for redistribution of income, apparently on the assumption that so long as we have well-off people, they should be made to give over a good deal of what they have to those who are less successful.

If Jencks has come to the view that whether people will get ahead depends on the contours of the economy, then we have to know how many places are available at the top of its structure. Interpretations are bound to differ on what constitutes success. Still we have figures on income and employment that provide a good beginning.

Each March the Census’ Current Population Survey asks people for information on what their incomes were during the previous year. Its sample covers 56,000 households, a more than adequate number. During 1978, for which figures have recently appeared, the income of all American households totaled $1.4 trillion. This, in effect, is the pie that must feed all of us. What the Census can tell us is who gets how large a bite. It also has information on where the bite comes from.

Somewhat over $1.1 trillion, or 82 percent of the total, comes from the earnings of individuals. The greater part, $927 billion, represents the wages and salaries of 62 million full-time workers. (Full-time means doing a full week’s work for at least fifty weeks in the year, paid vacations included.) Another 49 million persons worked less than full-time, and received $218 billion. The median income of full-time workers was $14,961 in 1978. For the others the figure was $4,419. Of the full-time workers, 34 percent were women. Among those with part-time employment, women comprised 56 percent of the total.

The leftover 18 percent of the $1.4 trillion, about $250 billion, consists of nonearned income. Here the distribution is approximately as follows: Social Security, 34 percent; veterans’ benefits and unemployment compensation, 9 percent; welfare or public assistance, 5 percent—all of which are government (“transfer”) payments and add up to 48 percent of the nonearned total.

The remaining 52 percent of the nonearned category includes: alimony, child support, and gifts, 5 percent; private and civil service pensions, 17 percent; dividends and other property income, 29 percent. It is the last, of course, that usually arouses interest.

In actual dollar figures, proceeds from property amounted to $73 billion in 1978, slightly more than 5 percent of all household income. Most middle-class families have property income of some sort, which means the overall distribution shows a fairly spacious spread. Even so, the families with incomes of over $50,000 received 28 percent of aggregate property income, averaging $8,900 per household.2 It is only when a household reaches the $200,000 range that nonearned sources provide most of its spending money. Unfortunately the Census survey makes “$50,000 and over” the top category on its charts.3 Still, those who have made it that far can be deemed to have gotten “ahead,” even if $50,000 in 1978 only put you in the upper reaches of the upper-middle class.


Income distribution takes two principal forms, each having its own special shape. The top part of the table shows the spread for the country’s 57.8 million families, defined as at least one adult plus one or more children or other relatives. (Not included in the figure are 24.6 million people who live alone or with a non-related housemate. Their median income came to only $6,705, or 38 percent of the family figure.) That the median income for families was $17,640 and that for workers was $14,961 was due in largest single measure to the increasing number of households where both spouses are employed. While the second spouse does not have a full-time job in all such cases, the extra earnings are enough to raise the couple to a higher income bracket. Thus while the top part of the table shows 16 million households with incomes of over $25,000, the bottom part has only seven million individuals making that kind of money by themselves. This also holds at the $50,000 range, with a million individuals with incomes at that level, but double that many families.

The incomes of individual workers form a Christmas-tree-shaped pyramid, more or less the classical shape for an industrial society. If we combine the two brackets at the bottom, we find 20 million persons, almost a third of the work force, making under $10,000. But the top part of the table displays family income (a scarecrow best defines its shape) with 42 percent of all households having incomes of over $20,000. Just what “class” this group constitutes is difficult to decipher. Especially if one spouse is a nurse and the other drives a truck, bringing in a total of $27,000. In sum, most Americans earn comparatively modest incomes as individuals. However a lot of two-wage households aren’t doing badly at all.

  1. 1

    Christopher Jencks, Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America (Colophon Books, 399 pp., $3.95, paper).

  2. 2

    The figures in this sentence are for 1977, as those for 1978 have not yet been published. Current Population Reports, Series P-60, Bureau of the Census, No. 118: “Money Income in 1977 of Families and Persons in the United States” (US Government Printing Office, 1979), Table 7.

  3. 3

    Breakdowns on income distribution over $50,000 are published by the Internal Revenue Service. However these refer to income tax returns, about half of which are husband-wife joint filings and half from individuals. In 1977, the most recent report, 1.4 million returns declared adjusted gross incomes of at least $50,000:

    Statistics of Income, 1977: Individual Tax Returns, Internal Revenue Service (US Government Printing Office, 1979), Table 4.

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