Wake Up, America

The Statue of Liberty front shot
"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to be tired, to be poor, and to huddle."

Discussing the social frustrations that led to the riots in the UK, an American friend suggested that the situation was probably exacerbated by the British class system, which he characterised as “You’re born in your class, and you’re stuck there”. While not denying that the USA had its class system too, he thought that they at least had the illusion of social mobility.

Indeed. I don’t think the vast majority of Americans appreciate just how much that is an illusion now.

You have to differentiate between social class as culture and social class in the sense of income group. Traditional class, with all its funny accents and different tastes in wallpaper, may still be a major part of the British cultural tapestry, but just as in America, what really matters is how much money you have. And the really important thing, the thing the American Dream is based on, is your ability to change that. In both countries, social mobility is mostly about being significantly better off than your parents.

But surely it is more difficult to move up the scale in the UK, with all its prejudice about accents and schools and forks, than it is in the US where self-advancement is a core cultural value?

Prepare yourself for a shock.

2005 – Source, Other, better known Source.

In 2005, social mobility in Britain was as good as, or better than, in America. And that was after a period of decline.

In good news for team USA, it has edged back ahead of the UK in the last few years. Possibly because the UK also adopted neo-liberal low tax economics? But comparing social mobility in Britain and America is like comparing fuel economy in fires. The sad truth is, if you want the American dream these days, you need to go to northern Europe or Canada.

Strength of link between an individual’s and their parents’ earnings, 2010 – Source

Oh and where does Ireland fit on this scale, you may ask, if you’re in Ireland? Well it’s hard to compare because of our far smaller and less developed economy, but as the top diagram shows, income inequality tends to go hand-in-hand with lack of social mobility.

Income inequality in Ireland? Don’t ask. It ain’t pretty.

One reply on “Wake Up, America”

It’s a bit unclear to me what social mobility means here.

If it means being able to jump from one percentile bracket to another in terms of wealth, isn’t income inequality then not always going to correlate highly, even though there’s no causal influence in “your life getting better”.

To jump to another bracket in a country with a very unequal distribution means you must make A LOT MORE money to jump up. In a equal country, you only need to make A BIT MORE.

While in both countries the ability to make A BIT MORE (and a corresponding better life), might be available.

Social mobility isn’t just ‘rags to riches’ to me. It just means that there’s avenues to make your life better. That doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot better.

As I read it from these graphs, social mobility becomes defined as the possibility to win the lottery: in Scandinavia it seems there’s a lottery that pays out a little to a lot of people, while in the US it pays out a lot to a few people. Well then: to me the latter is not necessarily less desirable than the former. In fact, you might say that the latter actually means there’s MORE social mobility.

Don’t forget, by the way, that the American Dream comes from freedom in the _pursuit_ of happiness, not happiness itself. Some would say the social democratic model actually is about the _right_ to happiness, but that’s a very arguable proposition, of course.

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