DP6316 Intergenerational Mobility and the Informative Content of Surnames

Author(s): Maia Güell, José V Rodríguez Mora, Chris Telmer
Publication Date: June 2007
Date Revised: February 2012
Keyword(s): birth-death processes, cross-sectional data, inheritance, population genetics
JEL(s): C31, E24, J1
Programme Areas: International Macroeconomics, Labour Economics
Link to this Page: www.cepr.org/active/publications/discussion_papers/dp.php?dpno=6316

We propose a new methodology for measuring intergenerational mobility in economic wellbeing. Our method is based on the joint distribution of surnames and economic outcomes. It circumvents the need for intergenerational panel data, a long-standing stumbling block for understanding mobility. A single cross-sectional dataset is sufficient. Our main idea is simple. If ‘inheritance' is important for economic outcomes, then rare surnames should predict economic outcomes in the cross-section. This is because rare surnames are indicative of familial linkages. Of course, if the number of rare surnames is small, this won't work. But rare surnames are abundant in the highly-skewed nature of surname distributions from most Western societies. We develop a model that articulates this idea and shows that the more important is inheritance, the more informative will be surnames. This result is robust to a variety of different assumptions about fertility and mating. We apply our method using the 2001 census from Catalonia, a large region of Spain. We use educational attainment as a proxy for overall economic well-being. Our main finding is that mobility has decreased among the different generations of the 20th century. A complementary analysis based on sibling correlations confirms our results and provides a robustness check on our method. Our model and our data allow us to examine one possible explanation for the observed decrease in mobility. We find that the degree of assortative mating has increased over time. Overall, we argue that our method has promise because it can tap the vast mines of census data that are available in a heretofore unexploited manner.