May 17, 2005

Social Mobility

The NY Times is running a series on the changing social mobility of Americana, over the last several decades. Social mobility is essentially the fluidity of individuals born into a given social class to move into another later in adulthood. Social mobility is measured most profoundly by the poorest ability to move up socially. The conclusion of researchers in this study is that social mobility has stagnated and indeed may be declining, while many people falsely believe the opposite and think that the greatest opportunity to rise from poverty to wealth still exist in the USA. The study notes that Great Britain and our own United States have the lowest rates of social mobility in the developed world.

One of the obvious reasons that the USA has one of the developed worlds least socially mobile populations is due to the phenomenon of being amongst the most racist in conjunction with the disadvantage of being lower class. The United States has one of the largest minority populations of the developed world. In the research compiled in the study, data revealed that blacks were nearly 3 times less socially mobile than their white contemporaries in American society. What this means is that for blacks, if you are born into a poor family, you are nearly 3 times more likely to remain in a state of poverty into adulthood than if you were white and born into poverty. Consequently, racism in America, if one assumes that genetic inferiority is not responsible for the increased class inertia, has constrained class mobility in America to a significant degree.

What I also found interesting is how much time the author uses for juxtaposing status temporally. The author’s noted how middle class people today live with the comforts that only the elite rich enjoyed some 50 years ago. In my opinion, class and status is a point in time metric. Class and status is relative to how people are positioned, relative to each other, at a given point or window in time. Thus, it serves no purpose to compare the comforts of middle or lower class people today, to those of classes in the past. The reason being is that each generation inherits the current state of knowledge and science from the previous and hence improves upon it enough to advance the efficiency or comfort of living. Therefore, each generation, regardless of class, will have the benefits of improved technology and comfort added to one degree or another to their lives. Thus, what defines class is not what one can afford and enjoy relative to those in the past, but relative to those that exist with them in the present.

It is clear to me that social mobility is the product of economic forces of supply and demand. When opportunity is in abundance, social mobility, barring discrimination, should be at its highest levels. Therefore, the research that shows that social mobility in the USA has stagnated, if not fallen, over the aggregate of the last 30 years, is evidence in the decline in relative opportunity for many in America. Theoretically, if there was no growth in economic opportunity, then the only way for one to gain opportunity and wealth is for another to loose opportunity and wealth. Hence, there would be no net gain, but only shifts in who posses the wealth. Such a hypothetical of shifting economic mobility in times of no growth is highly unlikely because wealth is power and power has the ability to manipulate politics and policy so that they can maintain their wealth and advantage over the poor, to such a degree that they or their children will never switch places.

The series measuring of class mobility changes is simply one more piece of a puzzle that reveals a picture of America on the decline. However, the implication of a reduction in class mobility is most ominous for African Americans. The reason being is that class is one of the inherited legacies and disadvantages born from centuries of slavery and discrimination. Hence, blacks are disproportionately pooled in the lower classes as a resultant of America never reconciling or repairing the damage it inflected from centuries of oppression. The researches estimated that class leaves a five generation advantage or disadvantage, on average, upon descendants emanating from wealthy or poor families. Given that, blacks have an inherited disadvantage born from America’s suppression, oppression and repression of black people, that gives whites a contemporary advantage in contemporary competition for opportunity. This we all know.

The study notes that going forward; education will become an even more prominent filter for class distribution and allocation. The study also noted that educational attainment is highly correlated with class today. Thus, if one puts two and two together one sees a further reduction in class mobility (four) as only the well off will be able to provide the type of quality education to offspring that will allow them to compete for opportunities in occupations that will allow one to reach the upper classes. With the decline of high paying manufacturing jobs for the non-college educated in the economy, hard work, in and of it self will fade as a means of social elevation as brain power and education becomes the dominant filter to the median and upper classes.

This is not to suggest that our economy will become dominated by brain power over brawn power. The truth is that currently only about 26% of jobs demanded in the economy require a college degree and most of the new job growth projected over the next 20 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) will be in occupations that do not require a college degree. In other words, the greatest numerical growth in employment will be in professions that do not require a lot of brain power and these jobs will not pay what the jobs of the past paid that required little brain power, like manufacturing. Consequently, if every adult over the age of 25 ran out and earned college degrees, you would have the phenomenon of too many educated people chasing too few jobs that require college education. Therefore, someone with a degree will still have to be a janitor, cashier, maid, food service employee ect., because there are simply not enough jobs being created that require a college background to accommodate a college educated labor pool.

In conclusion, the series reveals disconnect between perception and reality in regards to what America offers in relative and absolute terms. The nation and world is rapidly changing and the absolute and relative offering of America, compared to the rest of the world, and is also changing. I think America and Americans are living off a reputation of America created in the past that is lagging its current reality.


At 7:53 AM, Blogger Faheem said...

It sounds like the NY Times report is complimented by a report in the Chicago Suntimes. A study by the county found that the race of the person heading up a county office determined what the racial make up of those who worked in that particular office would be. The article states;

"According to the county's own records, the color of the person in charge is a good indicator of whether a job seeker gets through the door"

In one office where a Black man is in charge the 63% of the men and women in that office are Black, 26% is white.

In the office run by a white man, 70% of the men and women in the office is white while 16% is Black.

I can attest to something similar to this at the company I am working for now, but it is more in regard to gender than race. Since they put a woman as the third person in charge around here, four of the five departments she is in charge of now have women in Charge, and that was not the case before her arival.

Social mobility is not only hampered by the lack of available jobs that allow for us to move from one class status to another, it is hampered by the racist actions of employers who for no reason beyond their on racist views do not have confidence in the competence of Black folk, but the opposite is true of Black employers in most cases.

At 10:07 AM, Blogger Noah TA said...

What is transpiring in America is the realization that the best opportunity to reconcile the debt to descendants of slaves in America has passed. The best time to have done that was at America’s economic zenith. Now that this nation is on the relative decline (relative to the growth of developing Asia and relative to the fact that USA GDP growth is lagging the global average) it will soon manifest the symptom of absolute decline. In such a climate, it becomes more painful to pay off ones debt. It is akin to having a good job with plenty of disposable income…but still not paying off your debts. Well, if you could not or would not pay off your debt when during times of plenty….you most certainly will not find a rationalization to voluntarily pay them off when your income starts contracting.

In light of this, America is attempting to write of race…even while it remains the largest constraint on social mobility in this nation. There are countless tester studies, surveys and other research that shows that racism is alive and well and an inhibiting factor to progress. Despite the evidence, it’s an issue that is being shoved under the rug because truth is divisive by virtue of separating the righteous from the wicked. No one wants to touch the issue of race in this current climate of fear “war” and diminishing economic rates of return. Those who do speak of race are attacked and ostracized. They get demoted in society, while those who will speak of problems and symptoms born from racism as being rooted in personal irresponsibility get promoted. Hence, people who want to move up or are ambitious will adopt the latter ideology to rise as individual via selling out the masses and the truth.

Going forward, Class will be the lexicon for discussing social problems and issues….thus ignoring race and racism role in disproportionately pooling blacks into the lower class.

At 1:03 PM, Blogger Scott said...

One of the problems discussing social mobility is the changing yardstick.

Being in upperclass top 20% used to mean income over $100k. Now it means over $200K at a time when inflation only went up maybe 10%.

The rich are getting richer. But the poor are not getting poorer.

And except for owning a home, and private education the cost of everything is going down. So you have more products and services for the money you do have, wether its medical care or cellphone service.


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