March 22, 2023

Economix Blog: Who Makes It Into the Middle Class

A new study by researchers at the Brookings Institution shows that about two in three Americans achieves a middle-class lifestyle by middle age — and delves deeply into who makes it there and how.

Isabel V. Sawhill, Scott Winship and Kerry Searle Grannis tackled the question of why some children make it to the middle class and others do not, studying criteria that tend to be indicative of later economic success and examining how race, gender and family income come into play.

The study breaks life down into stages (for instance, adolescence) and gives benchmarks for each of those stages (in that case, graduation from high school with a grade-point average above 2.5, no criminal convictions and no involvement in a teenage pregnancy).

They then studied children over time, analyzing whether they met those benchmarks and projecting whether they would make it to the middle class — defined as the top three quintiles of income — by age 40.

Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that success seems to beget success — meeting each benchmark makes one more likely to meet the next. Moreover, the effect accumulates. A child who meets all the criteria from birth to adulthood has an 81 percent chance of being middle class. A child who meets none has only a 24 percent chance.

(Notably, at each stage of life, a person who failed to meet the given criteria had as high as a 59 percent chance of meeting them in the next round.)

The researchers also found that a number of other factors significantly influenced a person’s likelihood of making it to the middle class.

Family wealth, for instance, matters a lot. The researchers show that children born to rich families have a 75 percent chance of being middle income or better by the time they reach their 40s. For children born to poor families, the chance is just 40 percent.

Children from disadvantaged families are less likely to be ready for school at age 5, less likely to be competent elementary-school students, less likely to graduate from high school without a criminal record or a child, and so on.

Race matters as well. About two in five black adolescents met the benchmark of graduating from high school with a decent grade point average, no children and no criminal record by the age of 19. About two in three white adolescents did.

The researchers also compared boys’ and girls’ outcomes. They found that girls are more likely to meet the given benchmarks through childhood, but they lose ground later in life. Boys become as likely to meet the benchmarks as girls do by the time they are in their late 20s, and pull ahead by their 40s.

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Mine Owner to Pay $209 Million in West Virginia Explosion

The deal includes $46.5 million for the families of the victims and those who were injured in the blast, and includes terms that protect Alpha — but not individual Massey executives — from criminal prosecution, said Steven R. Ruby, an assistant United States attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia.

But for the families of the miners killed in the accident — the worst such disaster in 40 years — the settlement was justice denied. Many were hoping for criminal charges against the people who ran Massey, the company that, according to the federal government’s own review, knowingly put their relatives in harm’s way.

“Families believe that senior executives should be prosecuted, but they don’t have any great faith that they will be, and that’s what they are afraid of,” said Mark Moreland, a lawyer who represents the families of two victims.

Federal prosecutors say they are trying to do just that, pursuing cases against a number of individuals involved in the explosion. But industry observers warned that because of weak mining safety laws, prosecutors face a steep uphill battle pursuing the biggest prize — criminal convictions of the powerful people who ran Massey.

Under the federal mine act, safety violations, with the exception of falsifying records, are categorized as misdemeanors. That limitation that could make it hard to build a case against senior managers, like Don Blankenship, the former chief executive of Massey, lawyers said.

In all, 18 Massey executives have refused to be interviewed by federal investigators, invoking their Fifth Amendment rights.

“Until someone goes to jail, there will be no justice done here,” said Cecil E. Roberts, president of United Mine Workers of America International.

Only the mine’s security chief at the time of the blast, Hughie Stover, is facing criminal charges so far. But observers said he was so low in the hierarchy that any sentence would do little to satisfy the families.

Proposed changes to the mine act did not make it out of the House at the end of the last session of Congress, because of what a Democratic staff member on the Education and Workforce Committee described as an intense lobbying effort by the coal industry. A sponsor of the bill, Representative George Miller, Democrat of California, called on Congress to “close gaping loopholes that allow some mine operators to put their miners at needless risk.”

Tony Oppegard, a lawyer based in Kentucky who represents miners, said, “Even though you have the biggest mine disaster in 40 years, there’s been absolutely no federal legislation flowing from it.”

Still, many argued that the disaster brought a turning point in the way federal inspectors from the Mine Safety and Health Administration dealt with the industry. Inspectors have sharply increased their efforts, industry observers said, and more closely monitor mines, including by taking control of internal communication systems during surprise inspections so miners cannot coordinate with one another.

“We have certainly seen a change,” said Keith Heasley, a professor of mining engineering at West Virginia University. “They have stepped up their enforcement, and they are issuing more paper.”

The mining industry has taken notice, but executives say the increase in inspections has generated more violations and paperwork without necessarily making mines safer.

“The regulation quite often isn’t placed with the best focus,” said Vic Svec, a senior vice president of Peabody Energy. “MSHA still needs to target real improvements in mine safety. They hand out a lot of citations, but don’t focus necessarily on things that will bring about real safety improvements.”

Dave Blankenship, director of safety and environmental affairs for Teco Coal, a company based in Kentucky that has one of the better safety records in the industry, complained that inspections had become onerous.

“They write up violations for normal activities of mining,” Mr. Blankenship said, like everyday spills from conveyor belts and small leaks in hydraulic pumps. “They slow you down.”

Sabrina Tavernise reported from Washington, and Clifford Krauss from Houston.

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