Republican candidates have vilified Barack Obama for any measures supporting income redistribution, calling it “socialist” with Newt Gingrich calling Obama the “food stamp President”. Rick Santorum has stated he doesn’t want to “make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money”, while Mitt Romney says welfare to the poorest in society keeps the poorest in perpetual poverty. Libertarian Ron Paul, meanwhile, is more an advocate of keeping the federal Government out of these issues and wants to greatly reduce the food stamp allocation.
These comments would be reasonably fair if those in the poorest classes in American society had a fair shot at increasing their wealth, but studies say they don’t. The “Land of the Free” is at the bottom, or the near the bottom, of all studies in social mobility – the study of movement of individuals or groups in social position over time.
So while the Republican candidates advocate as little income redistribution as possible, countries with higher levels of income distribution are the best-performing on the social mobility chart and, in turn, can be labelled much greater “Lands of Opportunity” than the United States.
According to a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) – which consists of 35 of the most developed nations – the United States is among the countries where socio-economic background has the largest influence on students’ performance. Britain and France join the United States at the bottom of the list, while nations with strong education systems, like South Korea and Finland, along with Canada are the best-performing.
The study concludes “Mobility in earnings, wages and education across generations is relatively low in France, southern European countries, the United Kingdom and the United States. By contrast, such mobility tends to be higher in Australia, Canada and the Nordic countries.”
Being told you live in the “Land of Opportunity” does influence your perceptions though. An American Dream Report found American citizens are more likely than citizens of other countries to agree with statements like “People get rewarded for intelligence and skill” and less likely to agree with statements like “Coming from a wealthy family is ‘essential’ or ‘very important’ in getting ahead”.
Social mobility is important, because less mobile societies are “likely to waste or misallocate talent” and “lack of opportunity may affect the motivation, effort and, ultimately, the productivity of citizens, with adverse effects on the overall efficiency and the growth potential of the economy”, says the OECD study.
That “lack of opportunity” seemed to manifest at the London Riots last summer in less-socially mobile Britain. According the London School of Economics/Guardian study, lack of opportunity and general poverty was a factor – although not the most important factor – which fuelled the rioting last summer. The UK has seen the biggest rise in inequality among the 35 most developed nations in the OECD in the last 30 years.
Ireland’s position on the social mobility scale is generally at the lower end, but no as bad America or near neighbours United Kingdom.
According to some studies, Ireland has the highest association between the educational attainment of individuals and their parents in the OECD. A son of a father who is a skilled worker is, on average, 30% more likely to attend university than a son, whose father is unskilled.
The OECD study states those from a skilled family earn on average 20% more than those from an individual from a family with average education, while those from working class families fall are 16% below the middle income family.
The correlation between education and income is important. In 2009, the average income of an American with a Masters was $60,000, a Bachelor’s degree $45,000, a High-school diploma $30,000 and no High-school diploma $21,000.
Ireland has benefited from the economic prosperity of the Celtic Tiger years, where the abolition of third-level fees in 1996 is seen as an important factor in increasing Irish social mobility. This is true for middle-class families, who no longer had to pay fees, but was not true for working-class families – most of whom who attend college are in receipt of grants, and, therefore, exempt from fees. Free third level education made no statistical difference to the amount of working-class people attending third level education.
Third-level attendance is expected to rise by 30% over the next 10 years, as a result of Ireland’s young population, but the percentage of attendees from semi- or unskilled backgrounds fell from 10.8% to 8% in 2011.
It seems the largest prevention in third-level participation comes because of under-performance in secondary education. 20 fee-paying schools boast 100% participation in third-level education, while schools in working-class areas in Dublin, Cork and Limerick hover at the 40% participation level.
This “persistance”, as the OECD study calls it, is especially unique to Ireland, southern European states and Luxembourg “possibly reflecting financial and other constraints in access to post-secondary education, but also that inequalities in secondary education give rise to learning deficits that hinder students in qualifying for higher education”.
The increase in fees could, therefore, be seen as a positive in ensuring more working class participation in third-level education, as the money could be used to increase attendance of children in underprivileged backgrounds through the grant system. But as most universities complain they are underfunded in relation to their counterparts, this doesn’t appear likely.
To be among the poorest in Ireland means the austerity cuts affect you in a disproportionate way as the household charge proves, while enduring a society where a lack of educational equality means you are less likely to move up the social ladder. President Michael D. Higgins said Ireland never attained the status of a true “Republic”, because we never developed the concept of a “social floor” to which no one should be allowed fall under. If we don’t allow equality of opportunity to all our citizens, we’ll never achieve that “Republic” either.
Main photo courtesy of the New Statesmen