Cherry-picked evidence does not justify costly policies to boost “social mobility”

Ryan Bourne
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Cameron: “Britain has the lowest social mobility in the developed world” (Source: Getty)
When major political parties agree on an issue, worry. For the past decade, “social mobility” – the movement of individuals to different positions in society – has been said to be in decline, with Britain believed to perform poorly compared with other countries. At his conference speech last week, David Cameron summed up the establishment view of the situation, saying we “cannot accept” that “Britain has the lowest social mobility in the developed world.”

The picture painted is of a stagnant society, where your fate is largely determined by the fortunes of your parents – leaving thousands of individuals’ potential unfulfilled. Over the years, this backdrop has provided the intellectual foundation for a host of new policies, some of which might be described as social engineering: “early interventions”, expanded childcare funding, university admissions policies, and extending education to all up to 18 and higher education more broadly. But what if this whole “social mobility is declining” narrative is wrong or lacking in evidence?

In fact, a fair reading of the literature could come to exactly this conclusion. Traditionally, sociologists have dominated this field through the discussion of movements between “classes”. People tend to view the 1950s as a golden age of mobility in this sense – with many rags to riches tales between the generations and widespread self-betterment. But this was largely the consequence of significant changes in the labour market, which saw absolute mobility increase. In other words, the move from being working-class to middle-class after a generation was more common because the middle-class was hugely expanding. To a certain extent, this was a one-off phenomenon.

Since the 1960s, the rate at which people are likely to move up or down the class scale has remained largely unchanged. Within generations, there is a fairly high degree of mobility over time. How then have politicians painted a narrative of worsening social mobility?

Most have jumped on hugely disputed work undertaken by economist Jo Blanden and others, who looked at people’s earnings compared to those of their parents. They compared people born in 1958 and 1970 and concluded that the income fate of those born in 1970 was more heavily associated with that of their parents than those born in 1958. This was said to show a decline in social mobility – with these results then utilised as Britain’s data point for international comparisons. Thus the UK, alongside the US, was found to be one of the most immobile countries.

Yet the data used on incomes across generations has been criticised for being patchy, having collection issues and only providing snapshot data for families (i.e. potentially missing valuable information on how incomes change over time). Other studies using different metrics continue to conclude that social mobility is largely unchanged.

Cameron’s claim that we have the lowest mobility in the developed world is, as a result, highly dubious. International comparisons in this area are incredibly difficult to make given the different data sources and time periods used by different countries. The OECD, which published the paper that Cameron appears to have cited, urges against attempting to construct a “league table” – warning against comparing apples and oranges. The errors and uncertainties are simply too large to make comparisons meaningful. What’s more, the study Cameron is presumably citing has only 12 countries – hardly “the developed world”.

Yet the Prime Minister and his social mobility tsar Alan Milburn continue to make strong statements on this subject as if the evidence is undeniably negative and a huge public policy challenge. This would be fine were it merely a rhetorical pastime for them. But what’s troubling is the regular call for taxpayer funds to be thrown at various programmes to improve “social mobility”, based on such scant evidence.

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