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April 26, 2005

More on Social Mobility

I have previously posted on the subject of social mobility (for example here), so I thought I would report on an interesting new study by economists at the London School of Economics. A pdf copy is available here (NB: as this study has been in the news, the server may be temporarily overloaded. If so, try again later.)

Briefly, the study compares evidence on social mobility from eight countries: the UK, the US, Canada, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. Key findings are that:

- social mobility is highest in the Scandinavian countries and lowest in the US, with the UK second lowest and Germany somewhere in between

- social mobility in the UK (but not elsewhere) has fallen since the cohorts born in the late 1950s. The authors attribute this to the interaction of parental income and the education system: as access to higher education has increased, children from better-off families have taken more advantage of the new opportunities. In comments to the press, one of the authors has also said that the abolition of the eleven-plus system (selective secondary education based on ability) has hindered the prospects of bright children from poorer families.

I won’t analyse this in detail, but I don’t find anything in the report hugely surprising. However, I would put more emphasis than the authors on the high levels of mobility in all the countries studied. The correlation between parental income and child’s income is in all cases quite weak, and the majority of children are in a different social/income class from their parents. The authors somewhat obscure this basic fact by comparing the distribution with a hypothetical model of ‘perfect mobility’, in which the correlation between parents and children would be zero. Since this would imply that parents contribute nothing, by either nature or nurture, to their children's life chances, it should be dismissed as a fantasy.

The relatively low mobility in the US may raise some eyebrows, but the idea that social mobility in the US is higher than elsewhere has always been something of a myth. The authors also point out that in the US social mobility is affected by race, as it is lower among blacks than among whites.

The educational implications of the UK findings will no doubt cause some debate. There is growing recognition, even among the chattering classes, that education for the bottom 20 percent or so of the socio-economic scale is a disaster area.

It would be interesting to know more about the reasons for high social mobility in the Scandinavian countries. The thought just crossed my mind that social mobility may be positively related to the size of the public sector, since the public sector, whatever else may be said about it, does tend to recruit and promote people on the basis of IQ and academic qualifications, rather than family connections. Social mobility may be low in countries where much of the economy is in family businesses. But this hypothesis would need a lot of investigation.

Posted by David B at 03:04 AM