Social mobility will only improve if inequality is reduced
The last few days have seen both Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition partners emphasise their committment to improving social mobility. Of course this is a laudable aim – as Nick Clegg says, too many children’s life chances are determined at birth. However, it seems extremely unlikely that the Coalition’s policies are going to fix the problem that they are so keen to diagnose.
In a new TUC report, Richard has analysed the international evidence on social mobility. The findings are definitive: there is a very strong link between social mobility and equality. Any Government attempting to improve the opportunities of the poorest will first have to reduce the gap between rich and poor.
In their recent report Going for Growth the OECD undertook a comprehensive analysis of trends in social mobility across the developed world. They concluded that:
“narrower cross-sectional inequality (at a given point in time) is associated with lower intergenerational persistence in wages across European OECD countries”
Many other studies have reached similar conclusions. For example, a study of 20th century intergenerational mobility in the USA noted that mobility and inequality both followed similar patterns from 1940 to 2000: there was a steady increase in mobility, and decrease in inequality, from 1940 to 1980, with a sharp increase in inequality, and decline in mobility, thereafter.
Evidence therefore shows us that while education plays an important role, parental earnings are also extremely influential in determining educational outcomes. Investment in education that is not accompanied by action to reduce wider social and economic inequality will not successfully increase mobility. As the Liberal Democrats’ Independent Commission on Social Mobility concluded last year:
Whilst it is absolutely vital to promote the upward mobility of individual children and young people through education and employment opportunities, policy changes in these areas alone will not be enough…we need to develop a genuinely holistic approach to policy which takes account of all the drivers and barriers to opportunity, not just those that occur at school and work.
The ‘drivers’ the Commission identified included poverty and inequality.
So what the the likely impacts of the Coalition’s policies on social mobility? So far, we have seen a committment to implement the deepest spending reductions since WW2 and cuts made to date show us that the poorest will be disproportionately affected. In addition, despite the rhetoric on improving children’s life chances, around £13 billion of cuts have already been made to services and support directly targeted at children and young people.
Today the Deputy Prime Minister also infomed us that Labour’s investments in welfare spending have had ‘no discernible impact on the real life chances of the next generation’ – and presumably that it is therefore justifiable for benefits to be cut. But social security definitely does reduce poverty – if it doesn’t increase mobility it is because payments are not generous enough reduce inequality in the absence of a wider strategy (which could include, for example, a focus on making the tax system more progressive, increased recognition of the role that collective bargaining can play in raising wages, regulating bonuses and policy to improve job quality). The Coalition’s cuts to benefits will increase poverty, and make social mobility worse.
Despite all of its worthy rhetoric the reality of the Coalition’s actions are far removed from their aspirations. As fewer young people are able to find university places, careers services face decimation, schools are refused money for new facilities, low-income mothers have their benefits cut and families with children face homelessness Britain is becoming more unequal, and less socially mobile, than ever.