Social Mobility Summit: It’s Not Over

Richard V. Reeves
Reeves headshot
Richard V. Reeves President - American Institute for Boys and Men

January 16, 2014

It takes a lifetime to improve someone’s intergenerational mobility—and we did not solve the problem of the insufficiency of the American Dream at our Social Mobility Summit on Monday.

But we made a good start with both the politics and the policy.

Social Mobility is a Bipartisan Problem

In terms of the politics, the key positive was that our two public speakers—Paul Ryan and Kirsten Gillibrand—agreed that we have a problem of low social mobility, especially from the bottom of the income ladder.

“The block that you live on shouldn’t determine your [chances for] success,” said Sen. Gillibrand said. 

“The condition of your birth should not determine the outcome of your life,” said Congressman Ryan.

As Summit attendee Mark Edwards over at Opportunity Nation points out, getting agreement on the problem is a necessary first step. Like alcoholism, you have to accept you have a problem with social mobility in order to do anything about it.

Policy-Light in Public, For Now…

Gillibrand repeated  the five elements of her Opportunity America planRyan stressed that he was still in listening mode—”I’ve two ears and only one mouth”—but did reiterate his interest in the U.K.’s Universal Credit, a simplified system for delivering means-tested benefits. (Not sure that’s a good idea, btw, but that’s for another day….)

High Points from Working Sessions

Alongside the public events we held a series of workshops on key life-stages, broadly in line with our view of the Five Strong Starts for Social Mobility. You’ll be seeing some of the most interesting elements of these sessions on this page over coming weeks. For now, some of the points or facts that struck me along the way:

  1. Opportunity and mobility are not necessarily coterminous. Sometimes even when an opportunity is available, a person may not be able or willing to seize it. A measure of equality of opportunity is sure to map closely to a measure of actual mobility—but maybe not exactly.
  2. Young people from a high-income background are FOURTEEN times more likely to study a highly-selective university.
  3. Marriage influences outcomes through two main pathways—income and parenting. Right now, it looks to me as if parenting is the more important of the two. And it seems more likely that the people committed to parenting are also more likely to want to commit to marriage, than that marriage causes a big change in parenting behavior.
  4. It may be time to take the idea of the government as employer of last resort more seriously, given the length as much as the depth of the recession: not least because long-term unemployment leaves a permanent scar on individual job prospects and the labor market as a whole.
  5. The era of incrementalism in K-12 education reform might have to be brought to a close. Achievement gaps have stubbornly survived decades of reform. On K-12 reform, maybe it’s time, to use one of my favorite new phrases, to “go big or go home.”