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Social Mobility and The Son Also Rises: The Bad

See Part 1 and Part 3 of this series on Gregory Clark’s book “The Son Also Rises.”

Greg Clark applies an innovative technique – analysis of surnames – to argue that social mobility is slow and consistent, both across continents and generations. “Mobility is consistent across generations,” he writes. “Although it may take ten or fifteen generations, social mobility will eventually erase most echoes of initial advantage or want.”

Two problems, though:

1. Underlying Social Competence or Underlying Social Status?

Clark relies on an assumed or “latent” level of “underlying social competence”  to explain the differential outcomes of people of various status, mediated through surnames (we’ll say more tomorrow about how this social competence is passed down). But at other points, his analysis of mobility patterns relies on what he calls an “underlying social status” for different groups.

Clark describes two families with the same income of $90,000—one Jewish, one African American. The Jewish family’s income is below the average income for Jewish families, whereas the income of the African American put them well above the average for African American families:

“Families who have incomes well above the average of [the African American] community typically have benefitted from a positive random shock to their income that has placed them above their underlying social status. One average, the random component affecting their family income is substantial and positive. Their true underlying social status is typically lower than their income indicates, and it is this underlying social status that predicts the income of the children in the next generation. So the black children will show, on average, a greater drop in income relative to the parents than the Jewish children.” (p.125, our emphases)

What Clark seems to be saying in his initial argument is that different groups have varying levels of “underlying social competence” —and that this explains the perpetuation of their status, whether high (for Jews) or low (for blacks).  But if a groups’ social status is also in some way “true” and “underlying,” he’s saying something rather different. A generous interpretation is that Clark is not being careful enough with his terms; a less generous one is that he thinks some racial gaps reflect some innate characteristics of certain groups (which he strongly denies).

2. Status Is Determined by Discrimination as Well As “Competence”

There is a real danger here of circularity. According to Clark’s theory, a low-status group typically remains that that way—often for centuries—because of a lower level of “underlying social competence.” But they may also remain low status for a simpler reason: discrimination against that group. In other words, “underlying social status” is likely to reflect not only endogenous factors captured by “competence,” but also exogenous factors such as the institutions, norms of a particular society at a particular moment.

*Disclaimer: The first author of this blog  may be influenced by the fact that his surname Reeves is described by Clark as a name that “originated in the Middle Ages from the occupations of people of higher social status” (originally from the high manorial occupation of a reeve or steward), - but has since “reverted to average status.”.

  • Richard Reeves is a fellow in Economic Studies and policy director for the Center on Children and Families whose research focuses on economic mobility. He is also an associate director of CentreForum. Before his move to Washington, DC in the summer of 2012, he worked as director of strategy to the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister. He is a former director of Demos, the London-based political think-tank.

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