Overcoming Barriers to Mobility: The Role of Place in the United States and UK

Alan Berube
Alan Berube Interim Vice President and Director - Brookings Metro

April 1, 2006

In late 2004 and the first half of 2005, the US media elite caught the mobility bug. Within weeks of one another, three newspapers of national record—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times—each independently published a series of articles describing, by various measures, whether and how Americans are ‘getting ahead’ today. Collectively, the articles offered a re-examination of a powerful narrative in the United States: that of a classless society, with boundless opportunity awaiting those who choose to seize it.

Why these newspapers all chose to examine the issue at the same time is anyone’s guess. But one might wonder why the media elite did not place social mobility on the public radar in the run-up to November 2004, when the nation was embroiled in yet another narrowly contested presidential election. It would have been illuminating to watch candidates Bush and Kerry grapple with the policy implications of changing opportunity and mobility in US society, rather than argue about who was going to give the nebulous middle class a bigger tax cut (and reduce the budget deficit at the same time).

For frustrated US researchers, then, it is quite gratifying —and envy inducing—to see the issue of social mobility assume a central place in the public debate across the Atlantic. In the UK, the discussion is empirically grounded, its implications are acknowledged across the political spectrum, and policymakers connect the issue to a series of domains, including education, health, safety, and employment. Americans who foolishly argue that the UK is not really a ‘foreign’ country need look no further.

One important strand of the UK mobility discussion has focused on the role of ‘place’. The central questions here seem to be (a) ‘Does where you live affect your chances in life?’ and (b) ‘If so, how much?.’ The answers could inform a range of policies regarding housing, schools, regeneration, and welfare — and could help policymakers assess the relative importance of reforms in these areas to broader efforts aimed at enhancing social mobility