Britain’s social mobility is far too low

Allister Heath
SOCIAL mobility is weaker today than it was in medieval England. That is the shock finding of research by Gregory Clark of the University of California, Davis. He uses surnames to trace whether descendants of the rich and poor of one generation have the same economic status as their ancestors or eventually revert to the average.

His study, presented to the Economic History Society’s conference yesterday, looks at two groups of people with rare surnames from 1858-87 – one rich, the other poor. On average the holders of the “rich” surnames of 1858 are still substantially wealthier in 2011, four generations later, than the holders of the “poor” surnames. The holders of “rich” surnames still live three years longer (their advantage, however, in 1858-87 was 18 years, so here there has been much greater reversion to the mean). The research, while not wholly convincing given the radically changed circumstances, nevertheless make fascinating reading.

Clark argues that from the Domesday Book – compiled in 1086 – until recently English society showed complete long-run social mobility (though obviously he is not including members of the royal family and the like). The descendants of the rich and poor of one generation both eventually became average. Those bearing the name Smith, for example, are mainly descended from village blacksmiths of England in 1350. Yet by 1450, three or four generations later, the share of Smiths at Oxford University equalled their share in the general population. By 1650 there were as many Smiths in the top one per cent of wealth holders as in the general population.

Clark’s facts are great, though some of his additional arguments and conclusions fail to convince. He is right that “the huge social resources spent on publicly provided education and health have seemingly created no gains in the rate of social mobility.” He goes on to state – and here I disagree – that “the rate seems to be a constant of social physics, beyond the control of social engineering.” I suspect instead that it is misplaced social engineering that reduced mobility.

Standards in state education are appalling; the destruction of grammar schools in particular has robbed the poor of a ladder of opportunity and basic numeracy and literacy skills. Cowardly governments of all parties parked millions of people onto welfare and forgot about them. Technological change and globalisation mean that the UK labour market is hollowing out: there are increasing numbers of high skill and low skill jobs, and fewer in the middle. Let us hope that Michael Gove’s reforms to education and Iain Duncan Smith’s attempt to encourage hundreds of thousands of welfare-dependent people into work are allowed the time to bear fruit. The Institute of Fiscal Studies, which has its own views on these matters, points out that basic skills such as literacy and numeracy have higher economic returns in the UK than in many other countries. For adults, improving non-cognitive skills (such as time management, teamwork, leadership skills, self-awareness and even self-control) may be the best way of helping their earnings and hence their social mobility.

Crucially, the answer is not to punish those who have made it: that always makes matters worse. It is to give the poor and marginalised the tools (cultural, educational and incentive-based) to better themselves. The task ahead is as huge as it is urgent.

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