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Making it into the middle class

November 13, 2013: 10:36 AM ET

It's nice to think one can easily go from being dirt poor to filthy rich, but it doesn't usually work that way.

Of people born into lower income households, few will ever make it into the middle class, according to a recent study from Pew Charitable Trust. Only a tiny percentage rise into the highest income bracket.

131112174947-income-brackets-tl-614xaOf those that did move into at least the middle class, they had these traits in common:

chart-middle-higher

The report noted a strong correlation between those able to move up the income ladder and family wealth -- having things like home equity, stocks, vehicles and other assets.

Median family wealth of those who made it to middle class was $94,586, while the median wealth of those stuck at the bottom was just $8,892.

While this might seem obvious -- of course people with a higher income will have more wealth -- the report said the two actually feed each other. The higher a family's wealth, the greater ability they have to invest in things like education or job training, which in turn boosts their income.

"Building savings is a tremendous tool for promoting upward mobility but it is largely ignored by policymakers," said Justin King, policy director of the Asset Building Program at the New America Foundation.

King said that while the government promotes wealth building for some -- largely through the mortgage tax deduction and other tax loopholes used mainly by the middle and upper class -- it actually discourages wealth building for the poor. Many government assistance programs take wealth into account when determining eligibility.

"They have to trade their long-term well-being for short-term assistance," he said.

The Pew data is from a study that has followed families since 1968. It uses 2009 numbers.

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About This Author
Steve Hargreaves
Steve Hargreaves
Senior Writer, CNNMoney

Steve Hargreaves is a senior writer covering economic, energy and environmental issues at CNNMoney. Previously, he worked out of Istanbul and Bangkok, and has been published in the Village Voice and the Australian Financial Review. He tweets at @HargreavesCNN

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