From the TUC

Equality of opportunity is not enough

05 Nov 2008, by in Equality, Society & Welfare

It is of course compulsory today for all blog posts to reference the US election.

I was struck by Obama’s claim that only in America could someone like him have become President. And of course it is an extraordinary achievement in a country where blacks were being deprived of the vote and segregation was legal not much more than a generation ago. Likewise it is hardly likely that the UK will have a BME Prime Minister – let alone Head of State – in the near future.

The ‘American Dream’ that anybody can make it is a powerful part of the national narrative of the USA. Yet the USA – like the UK – is also a profoundly unequal society.

Gini coefficient – the usual way of capturing a country’s level of inequality – of a range of advanced economies. I’ve pinched it from a Japanese website, which explains the ring round Japan, and while the figures are for 2000 this is not a league table where there are huge movements every year.

It can be seen the USA is among the most unequal countries among developed economies.

Back in the UK this week has seen government claims that social mobility is increasing in the UK after stagnating for many years. One would expect this to be the case under a Labour government that followed the Thatcher years, and indeed perhaps we could have expected a bit more – although social mobility has to be tracked over time to be measured so we cannot expect it to shift that rapidly.

But increasing social mobility is not the same as reducing inequality. It may provide some hope for the disadvantaged – as the American Dream is clearly intended to do – but in itself does not make a society more equal.

Indeed you can argue that a degree of social mobility is needed to legitimise excessive levels of inequality, and it is therefore hardly surprising that the modern Conservatives have made much of it.

Of course a society that has more social mobility is better than one that doesn’t, but it is a necessary rather than sufficient condition for a fair society.

Chris Dillow over at Stumbling and Mumbling argues that it is very difficult to increase social mobility because those who have done well fight hard to maintain their position, and says:

“Here’s my question. Wouldn’t it be better, in cost-benefit terms – for egalitarians to focus more upon reducing inequalities of outcome?”

I am not sure that there is always a straighforward choice. Measures to improve education for those at the bottom will reduce inequality and improve social mobility, but there is a powerful point here.

Indeed Obama himself in his famous exchange with Joe the non-union plumber made the case for less inequality in a choice between social mobility and help for the low paid, analysed well here by Linda Hirschman at The Nation.