20 August 2009

Rags To Riches? Not In the U.S.A

The United States has very low social class mobility.

[T]he United States ranks second to last among Great Britain, US, France, Canada, and Denmark when it comes to the rate of income improvement over four generations for poor families. [The U.K. was slightly less mobile.] . . . "our country actually has less social mobility and more inequality than most developed countries." . . .

The fact of social mobility is closely tied to facts about social inequality and facts about social class. In a highly egalitarian society there would be little need for social mobility. And in a society with a fairly persistent class structure there is also relatively little social mobility -- because there is some set of mechanisms that limit entry and exit into the various classes.

The analysis in the rest of the linked post isn't very sophisticated or empirical. It omits some of the key mechanisms for social class stability in the United States, like a growing tendency towards assortive marriage (marrying someone of the same social class or education) and hereditary intelligence. It also omits any analysis of important instances of social mobility in U.S. history, like the rise of the black middle class in the wake of the U.S. civil rights movement, the rise up the social ladder of Jewish immigrant communities, or the impact of the G.I. Bill. And, it focuses on inequality in educational opportunities while failing to grapple with the mountain of accumulating evidence that shows that the achievement gap in K-12 education starts much earlier and is much more impervious to being narrowed with simple solutions than most people assume.

But, the fundamental facts spawning the discussion, that income and wealth in the United States are highly concentrated by international standards, and that social mobility is low, are critically important for understanding the American status quo and thinking about what changes to that status quo make sense.


Michael Malak said...

Due to the outlawing of teaching slaves to read and write, we in the U.S. are still suffering from a large segment of the population being locked into a cycle of illiteracy and poverty. Literacy is learned primarily from the parents, not the school. Obviously, many descendents of slaves have broken this cycle and their descedents from now on will be literate. Just as obvious is that not all have.

The shift from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy exacerbates this situation.

There is no easy solution to this tragedy.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

I strongly doubt that your hypothesis is true.

Slavery ceased 142 years (about five or six generations) ago.

Brown v. Board of Education, when ended de jure public school segregation based upon race, was decided in 1954. While residential segregation in large cities limited its effect in the North, in small towns across the South, its effect in desegregating schools was very real a decade or two later (in the wake of follow up decisions). More than a generation of people have attended school post-Brown v. Board of Education.

High school graduation rates are now almost identical for blacks and whites nationally. College graduate rates are nearly that close, but the percentage of African Americans who have graduated from college has risen dramatically. Statistically, I suspect that there has been more social mobility for blacks in the U.S. in the last four generations than there has been for whites. The last forty years has seen marked progress in the economic progress of black Americans.

Genuine complete inability to read and write is now almost non-existent among people of all races born in the United States, although many people are "functional illiterate," which is usually measured as an inability to read materials written at the 9th grade reading level that a found in daily living.

Literacy due to lack of education is not a hereditary condition, and functional illiteracy is generally a lack of vocabulary and knowledge, which are primarily learned orally (and hence indifferent to the availability of education in reading and writing), not an inability to translate written characters into sound and meaning.

Economic change has made knowledge more important. But, the experience of developed countries in Europe and Asia suggests strong that this doesn't necessarily lead to greater inequality and reduced social mobility.

Both Europe and Asia historically had deep social stratification and rigid class systems including serfdom which was similar in effect in many respects to slavery. Literacy was widespread in the U.S. in the early 1800s, but was much more rare at that time in the now developed countries of Europe and Asia. Yet, these nations now have well educated and literate populations, even among locally born children in immigrant communities with very recent histories of illiteracy.

Moreover, divergence of the U.S. and other developed countries on measure of social mobility and income inequality is fairly recent. One hundred years ago, and fifty years ago, there was more U.S. social mobility and less income inequality.