Mobility: What Are You Talking About?

When we write or talk about social mobility, it is important to be clear which kind. Do we care about intra-generational mobility or intergenerational mobility? Income mobility, wealth mobility, educational mobility, or class mobility? Relative mobility or absolute mobility? All of these can be lumped, especially by political figures, under the general heading of “Opportunity,” a goal nobody can be against.

Relative or Absolute Mobility

On this blog our usual focus is on relative intergenerational income mobility. This is a normative tilt that we share with others, including our former colleague Scott Winship, now over at the Manhattan Institute. In his chapter for the Institute’s new publication, Income Inequality in America: Fact or Fiction, Scott offers a crisp distinction between relative and absolute mobility:

  1. “Relative mobility is about how the rank­ing of adults against their peers is (or is not) tied to the ranking of their parents against their peers. That is to say, ignoring dollar amounts, did adults who rank high or low in the income distribution also have parents who ranked high or low?”
  2. “Absolute mobility ignores rankings and simply considers whether adults tend to have higher, size-adjusted incomes than their parents did at the same age, after taking into account increases in the cost of living.”

For those who like animation in the morning, the Pew Economic Mobility Project has a nice one here on the relative/absolute distinction. As Winship points out, absolute mobility is high: 84% of Americans have a higher income than their parents did at a similar age.

Relative Mobility = Real Meritocracy

Of course both kinds of mobility matter. And each may reinforce the other. It may be easier to have more relative mobility when absolute mobility is rising too: being overtaken is less painful when you are still moving pretty fast yourself.

But in terms of “equality of opportunity,” relative mobility is the key. Even if everyone was much richer than their parents, few would be content if they were also stuck on exactly the same point on the income ladder. We want growth and more prosperity, but we also want fluidity and more fairness.

This is Winship’s view too, it seems:

“No one in the middle and upper-middle classes would accept it if their children had a 70 percent chance of dropping out of the middle class. We should resist accepting that poor children – who do not choose their parents – have only a 30 percent chance of making it to the middle class.”

The War on Immobility: We Need Better Measures

As the problem of social mobility gets more and more attention from the media and politicians, clarity on which kind is being sought becomes all the more important, especially when it comes to policy. We have called for the creation of an Office of Opportunity that could select a broadly agreed upon metric of social mobility. As Winship says, the war we need to wage is against immobility; relative immobility, that is.