Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Social mobility in the 21st century

David Brooks, my favorite NY Times columnist, writes today about social mobility. His hypotheis is that social mobility is on the decline:

[T]here are some indications that it is becoming harder and harder for people to climb the ladder of success. The Economist magazine gathered much of the recent research on social mobility in America. The magazine concluded that the meritocracy is faltering: "Would-be Horatio Algers are finding it no easier to climb from rags to riches, while the children of the privileged have a greater chance of staying at the top of the social heap."

I am not entirely convinced this is true. But the following paragraph, I think, contains important insights:

At the top end of society we have a mass upper-middle class. This is made up of highly educated people who move into highly educated neighborhoods and raise their kids in good schools with the children of other highly educated parents. These kids develop wonderful skills, get into good colleges (the median family income of a Harvard student is now $150,000), then go out and have their own children, who develop the same sorts of wonderful skills and who repeat the cycle all over again.

If social mobility is really declining, then the preceding paragraph provides a window onto the two most important reasons.

(1) The de-urbanization of America has led to less comingling of social classes. Prior to the 1950s, the middle class and upper middle class lived in cities and raised families in cities. But after forced desegregation of schools, and other leftist policies that ruined the cities, today only the very poor and very rich (who don't mind paying for private schools) raise families in cities.

Today, the middle class and upper middle class with children live in class-homogeneous suburbs defined by school disctricts.

(2) The increasing percentage of Americans graduating from college has, paradoxically, led to decreased social mobility. When few went to college, lack of a college degree wasn't the least hindrance to entering most career ladders. And furthermore, when fewer people went to college, college meant something.

Today, with so many graduating from college, the mere fact that one has a college degree is close to worthless. Instead there has arisen a complicated pecking order of colleges with expensive private schools for the rich on top. The new order favors the rich and well connected to a greater extent than the old order.

The Left Coaster wrote about the David Brooks column today, and predictably blamed Republicans for the problem. But, if he reads my post, he'll learn that it's really leftist policies that have caused the problem.


dadahead said...

Interesting that you blame the white flight problem on "leftist policies". So leftists are to blame for racist white people who couldn't move away from blacks fast enough?

Fucking twisted, dude.

Charles said...

I always feel like a post is ruined when duhduh-head contributes. It makes no sense with some stupid half observation. I checked the web site and duhduh is flatlined.

Anyway, there is certainly less of the rags-to-riches mobility from what I can see, though perhaps more of the lower class to middle class movement. That does take a great deal of hard work and those people are awesome to be around. Upper middle class to upper class has certainly gotten to be a harder move, the boundary keeps moving upward.

Whaddaya know, I almost make enough to get into Harvard... after all these years! I take exception to the sorting system of colleges. Partly anyway. If you go to a good school with a great reputation, you will get recognized for doing well in your job. Of course going to an "elite" school can mean you are just an idiot later and I have met and worked with plenty of those. Make yourself.

David said...

To the extent that this is a problem, it's largely due to the highly excessive emphasis on credentialism. Although David Brooks talks about "wonderful skills," what higher education is *really* about, all too often, is magical pieces of paper. It's the credential that counts, not the knowledge.

See my post "An Academic Bubble" at:


and also this discussion of class factors in the Ivy League at University Diaries:



Libertarian Girl said...

Don't call dadahead names, you only stoop to his level.

mikeca said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
mikeca said...

I think the serious threat to social mobility is the decline in the quality of public schools. This decline is related to the integration of public schools, but it has mainly been the 30 effort by conservatives to de-fund public schools (at least in part in respone to integraton) which is responsible for the decline in public schools. Now there is much more you can find wrong with public schools than lack of funding, but the truth is that teachers salaries have simply not kept up with other similarly trained professionals, and efforts to fix public schools that do not bring teacher pay up to acceptable levels are simply doomed to failure.

Libertarian Girl said...

De-funded schools? Typical liberal-speak, blaming all problems on the government not spending enough money. As if you can put hundred dollar bills on top of children's heads and then they magically start learning stuff.

Ron Chusid said...

There are a number of factors involved here, and it is an over-generalization to attribute these to Democratic versus Republican policies. However, if we are to engage in such generalizations, I'd give the edge on this issue to leftist economic policies. That is not to say such policies are generally superior or preferable--just that they win on this one point.

At the extreme case, socialism would equalize income the greatest (even if possibly leading to equality in poverty). In more conventional cases in this country, Republicans would be much more tolerant of conditions where labor is poorly paid, while Democrats would be more likely to support labor, decreasing inequality.

If George Bush's policies continue, these could exacerbate the problem. Despite all his rhetoric, George Bush has been the most anti-free market President since Richard Nixon, who I rank as worse than Bush for instituting wage and price controls. (Gerald Ford inherited Nixon's policies and might be ranked similarly, but his brief Presidency is rather a blur other than for his absurd WIN buttons).

Bush's policies tend to benefit large corporations at the expense of small business, and favor those who are already afluent and receive a large share of income through investment income. His support for big business interests decreases such mobility by reducing the ability of Horatio Algers to compete in smaller businesses. Increasing the number of people in the corporate world is also decreasing mobility due to the increasing disparity between workers and the handful of people at the top.

Decreasing or eliminating inheritence taxes also decreases this mobility, which again is a Republican policy.

I had reviewed this data from the Economist at the Light Up the Darkness Blog earlier in the month (http://www.lightupthedarkness.org/blog/default.asp?view=plink&id=188)
Here's more from the article which I quoted there:

A growing body of evidence suggests that the meritocratic ideal is in trouble in America. Income inequality is growing to levels not seen since the Gilded Age, around the 1880s. But social mobility is not increasing at anything like the same pace: would-be Horatio Algers are finding it no easier to climb from rags to riches, while the children of the privileged have a greater chance of staying at the top of the social heap. The United States risks calcifying into a European-style class-based society.

The past couple of decades have seen a huge increase in inequality in America. The Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think-tank, argues that between 1979 and 2000 the real income of households in the lowest fifth (the bottom 20% of earners) grew by 6.4%, while that of households in the top fifth grew by 70%. The family income of the top 1% grew by 184%—and that of the top 0.1% or 0.01% grew even faster. Back in 1979 the average income of the top 1% was 133 times that of the bottom 20%; by 2000 the income of the top 1% had risen to 189 times that of the bottom fifth.

The article discusses these issues in great detail, concluding with:

The Republicans, by getting rid of inheritance tax, seem hell-bent on ignoring Teddy Roosevelt's warnings about the dangers of a hereditary aristocracy. The Democrats are more interested in preferment for minorities than building ladders of opportunity for all.

In his classic “The Promise of American Life”, Herbert Croly noted that “a democracy, not less than a monarchy or an aristocracy, must recognise political, economic, and social distinctions, but it must also withdraw its consent whenever these discriminations show any tendency to excessive endurance.” So far Americans have been fairly tolerant of economic distinctions. But that tolerance may not last for ever, if the current trend towards “excessive endurance” is not reversed.

mikeca said...

LG: “De-funded schools? Typical liberal-speak, blaming all problems on the government not spending enough money. As if you can put hundred dollar bills on top of children's heads and then they magically start learning stuff.”

Have you ever considered a career as a teacher? Do you know anyone who is a public school teacher? Do you know how much, or should I say how little they are paid?

I am in Silicon Valley. I know sever ex-teachers working in high tech. They all graduated from college and really wanted to teach, but after a few years they realized that there was no way they could afford to get married, buy a house or raise a family on a public school teachers salary. They saw other people in high tech jobs making twice or three times as much money, and got out of teaching into a better career.

The only people left in teaching here in California are a very few dedicated teachers and those with no other marketable skills that just can’t find another job. Is that who you want teaching your children in school?

Your response is the typical right wing, let’s de-fund schools nonsense: “the problem with schools isn’t money”, “throwing money at the problem won’t fix the problem”, ….

I work in very completive private industry. What do private companies do when they start losing good people? They start giving large pay raises, cash bonuses, and stock options to their best employees. Money talks.

Public school teachers get the message. “The problem with schools isn’t money”, “throwing money at the problem won’t fix the problem”, ….

EZE said...

The problem is not pay as much as it is schools in which teachers want to teach. The results gap between inner city schools and suburban schools is well documented, and only the extremely confident and patient teachers are willing to teach at under performing schools. Try getting rid of the DOE and spending the money on low income student vouchers instead.

Here's a Hint said...

No one said being successful was supposed to be easy. Everyone can't be rich (by definition) and everyone can't be at the top of the ladder. There's still nothing stopping anyone from being successful but hard work. If the "privileged" are so lazy and handed success, it simply means they aren't achieving, innovating, or accomplishing. So, instead of whining about inheritance tax, college degrees and public school, work towards achievement, innovatation and accomplishment. No one is stopping you. To quote Glengarry Glenn Ross:

Go and do likewise, gents. The money's out there, you pick it up, it's yours. You don't--I have no sympathy for you. You wanna go out on those sits tonight and close, close, it's yours. If not you're going to be shining my shoes. Bunch of losers sitting around in a bar. [mocking] 'Oh yeah, I used to be a salesman, it's a tough racket.'

mikeca said...

The problem of teachers salaries is much worse here in California than in most areas. I found figures from 2001-2 year that show total funding (local, state, federal) per student in New York is $12,500. In Washington DC it is $12,000. In California it is $8500. This is in spite of the high cost of living in California. There are states that are lower, but they are mostly states with lower cost of living.

In the 1960s California schools were among the best in the country. The funding per student was also above the national average. Today California schools are almost the worst in the nation, and the funding per student is well below the national average. I suspect if you measure funding per student relative to the local cost of living, California schools would be the most poorly funded in the nation.

In California it is a matter of funding. Even good suburban schools cannot keep good teachers, and I don’t have any use for the DOE either, but I don’t think vouchers would do anything to help.

Oh, and my daughter goes to a private school. Tuition is $24,000 per year, and it is a non profit school too. Although they pay higher salaries than public schools, they still have trouble finding good teachers.

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