The Social Mobility Fairy Tale

Much of the discussion in political circles with regard to the state of the American economy, and the benefits of reform, has to do with social mobility. The great goal of economic reform, among progressives and even conservatives, seems to be a state where Americans might be able to change their social class (or largely move up in it) based on their own merit. And the increasing consolidation of wealth of wealth threatens to undermine this, right?

As Bob Herbert wrote in the New York Times back in 2005 “The gap between the rich and everybody else in this country is fast becoming an unbridgeable chasm. Put the myth of the American Dream aside. The bottom line is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for working Americans to move up in class.”

But what if this is wrong? It’s true that income inequality has grown dramatically in last 30 years in United States, but social mobility? In truth it doesn’t appear that ever changes much at all. Matthew Yglesias writes in a recent piece at Slate:

It’s often been argued that what really matters is America’s robust level of social mobility. That claim has, in turn, spurred a line of research showing that the level of social mobility in the United States is, in fact, not very high. For male workers, income is highly correlated with paternal income, so income inequality simply replicates from one generation to the next.

I often read people characterizing that research as proving that economic mobility has declined during the period in question, but that’s much less clear. What it proves is that rags-to-riches (and riches-to-rags) stories are rare.

If economic changes (particularly with regard to the wealth and income of American families) are very real, movement between classes appears no less common now than it’s ever been.

The Obama administration is particularly eager to tout its economic plans on their potential to improve social mobility. Back in 2009 it created the Middle Class Task Force, chaired by Vice President Joe Biden, in order to address, among other things, “the longer-term trends responsible for the middle-class squeeze, including the increased gap between productivity and wages [and] economic inequality and mobility.”

Biden was a natural fit for this task force, since he’s so often associated with the concept of social mobility. During his 2008 acceptance speech for the vice presidential nomination he said “I was an Irish-Catholic kid from Scranton with a father who, like many of yours in tough economic times, fell on hard times, but my mom and dad raised me to believe that it’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how quickly you get up.”

This task force was perhaps important because, according to a piece in the Economist, “stagnant rates of mobility risk turning the American dream to delusion.”

Perhaps, but was class mobility ever real? Research by economist Howard Steven Friedman of Columbia University demonstrated that less than 8 percent of Americans born to fathers in the lowest class ended up in the highest class. But almost half, 42 percent, of the American sons of fathers born in the lowest class ended up in the lowest class as adults.


A 2005 paper by economist Joseph Ferrie at Northwestern attempted to study social mobility over a longer period of time. Because the Federal government didn’t collect income data in any statistically comparable fashion until recently, Ferrie looked at occupations of fathers and sons between 1850 and 1970. He divided the country’s white, native born men (to keep the data consistent) into into four job categories: “unskilled worker,” “farmer,” “skilled or semi-skilled worker,” and “white-collar worker.”

What he found, as the New Republic’s Timothy Noah put it, “was that the equivalent of 41 percent of farmers’ sons advanced to white-collar jobs between 1880 and 1900, compared with 32 percent between 1950 and 1973.” That means, according to Noah, that “between the horse-and-buggy days and the interstate-highway era, American society had become significantly less mobile.”

Well something changed, but this doesn’t necessarily indicate much about mobility per se. Changes in agricultural policy, not to mention the Great Depression, very much altered the nature of farming between 1880 and 1973, but there’s not much information at all here about social class. American small-scale farmers are middle class, albeit a subsection of the middle class that’s unstable and highly debt-ridden. There’s every reason to think the children of farmers would become office workers at a much higher rate between 1880 and 1900 than between 1950 and 1973; the late 19th century was a time of rapid industrial expansion, everyone was leaving farms for city life. That’s not a change in social class; that’s just a change in occupation.

You may not have the same kind of job (or even income) as your father, but you probably have basically the same status.

This low social mobility phenomenon, interestingly enough, isn’t exclusive to this country. Even in societies with dramatically more equitable distributions of wealth, the class structures appear to be essentially fixed.

University of California, Davis economist Gregory Clark, for instance, has demonstrated that even in Sweden today aristocratic surnames appear among the ranks of the country’s attorneys six times more often than in the country in general. He finds this sort of thing is also common in the United Kingdom, Spain, and China.

Even “middle-class” Joe Biden provides a telling example of how this works in America. The “Irish-Catholic kid from Scranton” was the son of a businessman. He was the grandson of an engineer. One of his great-grandfathers was a Pennsylvania State senator. And Biden’s a lawyer. So are both of his sons.

All of this is not to say that something that feels like social mobility hasn’t occured. The strength of labor unions, the introduction of universal secondary education and the decreasingly price of household goods in the middle of the last century in the country certainly improved the actual lives of American workers, but did it really change their social class? Probably not much.

The increasing consolidation of American wealth subsequent to that, particularly in the last 30 years, has made the lives of the working class much worse, and it’s certainly frustrating to be stuck in an economic place with no viable exit strategy, but that doesn’t mean social mobility is any different.

Writing in reaction to Charles Murray’s controversial book about income inequality and social class, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, David Frum says this about the American worker:

You are a white man aged 30 without a college degree. Your grandfather returned from World War II, got a cheap mortgage courtesy of the GI bill, married his sweetheart and went to work in a factory job that paid him something like $50,000 in today’s money plus health benefits and pension. Your father started at that same factory in 1972. He was laid off in 1981, and has never had anything like as good a job ever since. He’s working now at a big-box store, making $40,000 a year, and waiting for his Medicare to kick in.

Now look at you. Yes, unemployment is high right now. But if you keep pounding the pavements, you’ll eventually find a job that pays $28,000 a year.

All of this is very important. Certainly it was much better to be working class in Gary, Indiana in, say, 1962, than it is today. But Walmart associates aren’t, in general, the offspring of teachers and accountants; they’re mostly the offspring of factory workers. Wage-earning employees just like themselves, only better compensated.

This trend is pretty unfortunate. And the economic decline of this theoretical family is very familiar. But all of the members of this family are part of the exact same social class. It’s not social mobility that’s stagnated here; it’s just that the working class is much worse off.

When politicians and economists talk about economic stratification it’s often presented as a problem because it undermines “a chance to enter the middle class,” but what they’re really talking about is just the ability to live with some security within the working class.

Maybe social mobility doesn’t really matter. Maybe the important thing is not that to ensure that a miner or a retail clerk can hope to send his kid to college so he can become a doctor or something. Perhaps the most important thing is just to look at how much money the worker actually earns and what sort of retirement he can look forward to. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer