Can we really improve social mobility while maintaining high levels of income inequality?

Author: Professor Anna Vignoles, Bridge Group Fellow

Left, right or centre, politicians are queuing up to tell us their passion for increased social mobility. And why not? Surely the cosmic coin-toss that determines parentage shouldn’t dictate where you end up? Rich or poor; rural or urban; North or South, isn’t it effort and merit that should determine your path? Sadly, and self evidently, this is not the case.

All round the world success, academic achievement and economic wellbeing are passed down like heirlooms. This cascade of privilege varies in its extent from country to country but the link between family background and academic or economic success remains strong, and in the UK, it is unyielding.

Income inequality means lower levels of social mobility

But do we really want this link broken? “Of course!” you cry.  We strive for an enlightened society, we believe in fair play and meritocracy. But what about when a good job is hard to find? We have been living in charmed times: good jobs have been increasingly plentiful since World War 2, but that trend is far from assured. In a world where the number of good jobs is stable or declining: for every poor child who moves up the socioeconomic ladder, a richer child must move down. Will privileged parents be happy to remain complicit as their children lose out in the name of equity? Economic experience would suggest that this sort of scarcity is not met with equanimity! Indeed, one might see the big increase in tutoring, the obsession with school league tables and the higher mortgages required to live near good schools as symptomatic of this issue.

We also know that income inequality and a lack of social mobility go hand in hand. Social mobility is lower in countries with greater levels of income inequality, and we even know why. The quantity and quality of time we invest in our children are transformative, and where this investment differs (by socioeconomic status of the parents, particularly in countries with large income disparity), family background becomes a key indicator of future success.

And there’s the rub. Whilst politicians are happy to embrace the rather abstract notion of social mobility, they are less enamoured of a commitment to reduced inequality. It’s easy to pay lip-service to meritocracy, but less straightforward to raise taxes or increase benefits. So that leaves the question: can we really improve social mobility whilst maintaining high levels of income inequality?

Redistributing wealth to achieve social equality

Can we overcome the disadvantages of the child born into economic uncertainty – the low-income family in the deprived seaside town, say? Only with big targeted investment in our least fortunate children. And, as we have seen, state funding being channelled to the poorest means resources diverted from the well-off. Raising taxes in a progressive system results in resources coming from the well-heeled and heading to those on low-incomes. A political bet on greater redistribution leading to reduced inequality and ultimately improved social mobility is a tantalising but brave move for a politician in uncertain times.

Yet once we recognise that social mobility and inequality are inextricably linked, we can start a serious public conversation about what we as a society wish to see for our children. There are reasons for optimism: public recognition of the link between social mobility and inequality is growing. Recent calls for tax increases specifically for the NHS show tacit acceptance of the principles of redistribution (it is the least well-off who directly benefit most from increased NHS spending). We need the courage to start talking about increased spending on our most deprived and vulnerable children. The fruits of a more equal, more socially mobile society – cohesion, societal well-being – are not as intangible as you might think.