Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Social mobility, meritocracy and the American Dream

A reader sent me a link to a story on Xymphora about the American Dream. One of America's traditional selling points is the possibility of social mobility. A person may be born poor, but grow up to be a CEO, a rock star, or even President. The problem? It's a lie. As an article in the Edmonton Journal points out, social mobility is higher in Canada:

Corak also cites U.S. research showing that almost one-half of children born to low-income parents become low-income adults, which means they fall in the bottom 25 per cent of income distribution. In the U.K, the tally is 40 per cent.

Children in high-income families, about four in 10, tend to become high-income adults in the U.S. and U.K., he said.

By contrast, there is significantly more movement between generations in Canada.

Corak says studies show that for every 100 people born at the bottom rung, one-third end up at the bottom, and almost one-fifth end up at the top.

For every 100 people born at the top in Canada, only one-third remain at the top.

The US ranks at the bottom of the social mobility scale of nations being studied, along with the UK and France. Canada, Finland and Denmark rank at the top. Xymphora attributes this to government investment in access to education, but more generally its about governments acting to ensure substantive equality of opportunity. The US doesn't do this very well - those born to poor parents are handicapped from birth by poor schooling, poor healthcare, and frequently poor nutrition. Spiraling tuition fees make tertiary education - the great doorway to opportunity - increasingly inaccessible to those on the bottom of the heap. As a result, those with talent may not be able to make use of it to better their position. Oh, it does happen, but not nearly enough (as the social mobility figures show). By contrast, places like Canada invest in decent public education, decent healthcare, they make some effort to relieve child poverty, and they try and open rather than close access to tertiary education. The result is a far more effective meritocracy, one which responds more to actual talent and less to inherited advantage.

The lesson in this is that measures to improve equality of opportunity and give everyone a decent start in life are justifiable on meritocratic grounds alone - and without them, you don't so much have a meritocracy as a system which excuses the unearned privilege of the rich while keeping the poor firmly in their place.


I wonder what Dubya would be doing today if he'd been born in a trailer park.

Posted by David Slack : 7/05/2005 08:15:00 AM

Well, it's no more a lie than any other statistics, including those you cite here.

Spinning figures helps, doesn't it. Some different arguments here:


Posted by PC : 7/05/2005 08:19:00 AM


texas IS a trailer park. just that some of the trailers have 15 rooms and swimming pools...

Posted by Che Tibby : 7/05/2005 09:22:00 AM

Poor kids can always get an education if they join the army, but graduation depends on surviving Iraq. But where else will the US get its future soldiers from - short of breeding them for specific military purposes?

Posted by Uroskin : 7/05/2005 10:32:00 AM

there's every chance that if things get bad enough they'll take the route all military powers do when their own people won't fight, they'll start handing out partial citizenship franchise in return for long service.

Posted by che tibby : 7/05/2005 10:56:00 AM

One of the many reasons I'm leaving.

Posted by Brian Boyko : 7/05/2005 11:29:00 AM

Don't know if this effects overall social mobility but interestingly, Alaska has a much lower percentage of children living in poverty than the rest of the U.S. Why? Because they have a form of guaranteed basic income which goes to every citizen including children. Its a yearly dividend of a few thousand dollars paid out of Alaska's oil revenues.

Posted by Make Tea Not War : 7/05/2005 11:40:00 AM

Add in poor housing and the attitude that a single parent working 60 hours a week on minimum wage while the kids aren't well looked after, is better than a good parent raising healthy, happy, educated children on welfare.

Can everybody say "jail as the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff" boys and girls?

Posted by muerk : 7/05/2005 06:05:00 PM

social mobility is quite a good measure I think - does anyone have comprehensive statistics on that?

Posted by Anonymous : 7/06/2005 09:05:00 PM