Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Inequality and social mobility

Antonia and Adrian think we should worry less about social mobility and more about inequality.

I would have thought, however, that this is a bit of a false choice, that there would be a link between greater social mobility and lower levels of inequality. In the UK and other Western countries, the thirty years since the Second World War saw social mobility increase and inequality fall, whereas over the last thirty years, inequality has risen and social mobility has decreased.

Richard Wilkinson's research found that as income inequality increased, social mobility declined and social segregation increased. T'internet also points to research from America, which suggests that high income inequality is a cause of 'high intergenerational persistence of economic status', along with relatively low levels of education funding.

So one of the many good reasons for focusing on reducing inequality is the beneficial effect of helping to make sure that how children get on in life doesn't depend on how rich their parents were. Social mobility and high levels of equality are not the same thing, but you can't have one without the other.


At 7:00 pm , Blogger The Provisional BBC said...

I agree, but the question whether the focus of our desires is equality or merely social mobility is likely to effect our approach to ending poverty.

Social moility conjures Lib-Demmish notions of a meritocracy where people succeed and fail based not on the wealth of their parents but "innate" ability. It suggests trying to create processes where people have equal opportunities to outdo each other. If I was trying to create a society like this I'd be arguing for good early education to allow people to "escape" their upbringing, and for totally free university education. I'd want to remove limits on the right-to-buy policy, preferring to support the possibility of a few owning their own houses over the need for socially affordable housing for people in future generations with less opportunities. I wouldn't care about adult learning or child benefit or the rights, conditions and pay of agency workers.

Some of these ideas seem left-wing and perhaps they would be side-effects of an increased focus on equality. But if I had a choice between releasing investment to make university education completely free and releasing investment to raise the school/training leaving age to 18 with thousands of extra apprenticeships and training schemes, I know which one I'd opt for. I'm proud that our government has gone the same way.

It's also worth mentioning that even when social mobility has been high in Britain, it hasn't tended to mean children of low-paid manual workers or in high areas of unemployment having additional opportunities; it's meant children of skilled workers becoming middle-class and children from lower-middle class families going to Oxbridge.


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