• Home
  • Latest
  • TV
  • Now & Next: The Class Ceiling: How to boost social mobility – in partnership with The Economist

Now & Next: The Class Ceiling: How to boost social mobility – in partnership with The Economist

Posted on 26 November 2021

Climbing the social ladder is trickier than ever. In many rich countries, the class you are born into still dominates your chances of ‘making it’. This lack of social mobility has severe societal risks – with widespread public disaffection and increased political radicalism evident. Where did it all go so wrong, and how exactly can we improve social mobility for future generations?

I look down on him because I am upper class.

I look up to him because he is upper class.

I know my place.

Narrator
In the 21st Century you might think climbing the social ladder has got easier but actually it’s getting harder. In many rich countries the class you are born into still dominates your chances of making it.

Sophie Pender Founder, The 93% Club
No one talks about these sort of hidden privileges that are going on underneath the surface.

Narrator
Even in America the so called land or opportunity your chances of climbing up the income ladder are some of the lowest in the rich world.

Isabel V Sawhill - Senior Fellow, Brookings institution
What the data suggests is that we are not such a land of opportunity after all.

Narrator
This lack of social ability is causing serious political rifts.

John N Friedman - Economics Professor, Brown University
When people feel they just don’t have a shot that’s what leads to disaffection, it leads to radicalism in politics.

Narrator
So what’s gone wrong? And what can be done to improve social mobility?

 

NOW&NEXT

How to increase social mobility

- Borehamwood, London

Sophie PenderFounder, The 93% Club
So this is where I grew up, it feels like a lifetime ago to be honest.

Narrator
As a child, Sophie Pender lived on a council estate and says hardly anyone thought she would make anything of her life.

Sophie Pender
It’s hard to expect anything from someone who has grown up where her dad is an alcoholic and a drug addict. I think people just expect them to follow the path that their parents have taken.

Narrator
But Sophie has defied expectations. She now works for a top law firm and is passionate about helping working class people to get ahead.

Sophie Pender
People have felt comfortable insulting me because in their mind they think, well if you’re working class you can change that, the onus is on you. If you live on a council estate, that’s your fault. But actually it’s a whole host of factors that mean that someone might not have had you know, the opportunities available to them.

Narrator
Sophie is the exception to the rule. Britain has a social mobility problem. If you are born at the bottom here, your chances of moving up the income ladder are lower than in many other rich countries. There’s just a 9% probability of moving from the bottom of the income ladder to the top.  It’s even lower in America. But to put that in context you are almost 50% more likely to make it to the top if you live in places like Canada or Denmark. This is known as relative social mobility. Part of the reason for these differences is the level of wealth, income and equality and welfare provision in each country.

Isabel V Sawhill
I think America is the poster child for rising income and wealth inequality. The way I like to think about it is that when you have a lot of income inequality the rungs on the ladder of opportunity are much further apart and that makes it harder to climb that ladder.

Narrator
Those at the very top of the ladder have also pulled away from everyone else. In 1975 the share of taxable income going to the top 1% in America was 9%. By 2018 that had more than doubled.  And declining social mobility is bad news for American society.

Idrees Kahloon - Washington Correspondent, The Economist
The fact that if you are not from that privileged background then you feel like your kids are set up for failure to some degree. That’s a very powerful political impulse and a real source of energy for populous movements on the left and the right not just in America but also across the world.

Narrator
It used to be much easier to get ahead. After the Second World War countries such as America and Britain enjoyed a social mobility boom. An expansion in professional and managerial jobs allowed many working class people to move up the income ladder and as a result if you were born in the post-War years in America you had a 90% chance of making more money than your parents. But this didn’t last. From a high in the 1940’s, absolute mobility has been falling and the generation of children born in the 1980’s had just a 50% chance of making more money than their parents. One team of economists have dubbed this phenomenon the fading American dream.

Isabel V Sawhill
Since the Second World War in America absolute mobility has declined and those chances have declined pretty steadily for each younger generation in America so if you are part of the millennial generation you should be pretty disturbed by all of this.

Narrator
There’s one divide which has become especially significant. Whether you’ve been to University or not. In rich countries there has been an economic shift away from manufacturing towards more service based industries which means there are now fewer openings for those without a degree.

Idrees Kahloon
Education has now become the new determinant of people’s incomes and life chances much more than it was 50 or 60 years ago.  Now that revolution has minted winners particularly in highly paid service sector jobs; doctors and lawyers. For the lower and middle class it condemns them to a bit more of a precarious financial situation.

Narrator
So what can be done to bridge this social divide and widen access to higher education? 

- Newham, London

Narrator
In Britain a new breed of state schools like this one have sprung up catapulting kids from lower income families into top Universities. 

So now let’s solve this problem and then talk about what that K value means in the context of…

The NCS in located Newham, London’s second poorest borough. While nearly half the students here are on bursaries or qualify for free school meals, an indicator of deprivation, last year 95% went on to top Universities in Britain. 

We’re humans, we have the same capacities, we should be able to do the same things…

Most will be the first in their family to get a degree, let alone one from an elite University.

My parents haven’t gone to University so I didn’t really have, like, mentors to guide me and like mw now aspiring to go like Oxbridge, that’s a huge deal.

Coming from like a working class background with like, immigrant parents, they really like to push the education thing so much because they want their sacrifice to matter, they want children to break the class barriers that maybe, maybe acted as an actual barrier for them. 

Head teacher, Mousshin Ismail grew up nearby and left a six figure salary as a lawyer to run the school. He is passionate about boosting social mobility.

Mousshin Ismail – Principal, Newham Collegiate Sixth Form Centre
Where you are born shouldn’t dictate where you end up and just because you are not born with a silver spoon in your mouth but if you are talented you should be able to realise your potential.

Narrator
He keeps the school’s performance in constant view on his office window. He says improving student’s life chances means running a so-called super curriculum.

As soon as you hit this wall and go outside of the box, the potential energies infinite.

And today it’s quantum mechanics.

So we’ve got this idea that when we are in…

Mousshin Ismail
I think the different between what we do and what other schools may lack is the forensic focus on the fundamentals being unashamedly academic, unapologetically ambitious for our young people.

Narrator
It probably helps that the school only takes the very brightest. Last year they had four thousand applications for three hundred places and schools like this are starting to make a difference by challenging private fee paying schools, bastions of Britain’s class system. 

You’re not so clever, you can’t afford the fees, so we all stick together…

Schools like Eton College have long been pilloried in comedy sketches like this for disproportionately feeding Britain’s elite. Just over a third of the nation’s prime ministers were educated there. But private schools hold over elite Universities is declining. In 2016 around 40% of UK admissions to Oxford and Cambridge came from private fee paying schools despite the fact that only a small proportion of children attend them. But by 2020 that figure had dropped to nearer 30%.

Adrian WooldridgeAuthor, ‘The Aristocracy of Talent’
We need to have the largest possible attempt to drill down in society to try and talent wherever it is, the hidden Einstein’s, as it were and I think this is one area where Britain is doing quite well compared with the United States.

Narrator
America is one of the only countries in the world to have legacy admissions where colleges can actively discriminate in favour of the children of alumni. 43% of white students who graduated from Harvard between 2014 and 2019 didn’t get in on academic merit alone. This helps perpetuate a cycle where if your parents are wealthy you are more likely to graduate than if your parents are poor and did not go to college.

Adrian Wooldridge
What they have created in America is a national ruling class based on educational certificates. They are absolutely obsessed by education credentials. If you are unfortunate enough to look at the social pages of the New York Times, it’s full of saying that so and so with a Degree from Harvard married so and so. Credentialism has become the new mark of being a member of the upper classes.

Narrator
In America there have been some high profile efforts to equalise the system of University admissions. Kawika Smith has been at the forefront.

Hi honey. It’s good to see you.

Kawika Smith
It’s good to see you. How’s the community been?

We’re trying to build more people like you.

Kawika Smith
Yes. There’s not enough being done to help low income students in America.

Narrator
Growing up he dreamt of going to UCLA but didn’t get the grades he needed in his SAT’s. The standardised tests used in college admissions.

Kawika Smith
It’s a money gimmick.

Narrator
SAT’s were first introduced in 1926 as a way of increasing the pool of people admitted to Harvard but it didn’t work out like that. In recent years Asian and white students have consistently done better on the tests than black and Hispanic students and wealthier pupils also out perform their poorer peers. According to the most recent data a student with a family income under $20,000 can expect to score 136 points less on their writing SAT’s than someone with a family income of over $200,000.

Amanda Mangaser Savage - Staff Attorney, Public Counsel
It is susceptible to being prepared for so access to test preparation and particularly expensive test preparation is disproportionately available to students from high income families and it’s really not a level playing field at all.

Narrator
Along with a coalition of community groups, Kawika took the University of California to Court over its use of SAT’s and after a lengthy legal battle the University dropped the tests from its admissions process.

The University of California system will no longer consider SAT scores for admission.

It could reshape the College admissions process across the entire country.

Narrator
But the result came too late for Kawika who never made it to UCLA.

Kawika Smith
The law suit was never about me. It was affirming because I knew that generations coming after me will no longer have to experience that level of discrimination.

Narrator
Many more colleges are now reconsidering their use of SAT’s and legacy admissions policies.  But some argue tinkering with the admission system will do little to improve deep rooted inequalities.

Idrees Kahloon
A lot of the emphasis focusses on elite institutions. I think that that misses the point for inequality, poverty. The composition of UC Berkeley student body I think matters substantially less than we seem to think. It is more important to think about disparities and graduation rates from high school than it is the sort of composition of, of elite student bodies.

The young people of today deserve the same opportunity to earn success and accomplishment.

Narrator
You have a better chance of improving social mobility if you start you. Kids from wealthier families tend to outperform lower income children as early as primary school.  But there is a simple way to boost young children’s chances and it was demonstrated in this small island nation. The story began in the late 1980’s.

Christine PowellSupervisor, Jamaican Home Visiting Intervention
So at that time I was saying there was a lot more poverty than there is now. Some of the homes that we went into they were really, really very poor.

Narrator
Christine and Novelette were part of a pioneering scheme to help some of the poorest children get ahead.

So we are here with the toys.

As health workers they would visit families every week bringing home made toys and games.

Novelette
One they seen the uniform, always looking out for you, you know, and say is the nurse coming? The nurse is here.

Narrator
These are the original toys they brought door-to-door. Many made from household rubbish.

Christine Powell
You would ask the child if they know any of the pictures and most of them would know ball because you know, Jamaicans are into football so every little child knows a ball.

Novelette
This is made from old socks.

Christine Powell
The mother’s reactions were mixed. There were a few wondering what am I going to do with these things seeing that they were made out of plastic bottles and so on but after a few visits they loved it.

Narrator
The scheme was the brainchild of physician, Sally Grantham-McGregor who was working in Kingston at the time.

Sally Grantham-McGregor
Nobody appreciated the importance of play, there were no books, there were no toys. The children were just sitting there in the backyard, we call them the yards, doing nothing, they had nothing.  So that’s where I was coming from to try and improve equity a little bit.

Narrator
The homemade toys and books helped the kids to develop language and cognitive skills.

Sally Grantham-McGregor
What was unique I think was that we wanted to work with the mothers and we wanted to make it as cheap as possible but still effective.

Christine Powell
I feel very proud because I see that other people can come and you know, doing the same thing that we used to go out and do and they are benefitting from it.

Narrator
Sally’s team together with economists followed the children who were taking part in the experiment. The results were extraordinary. Twenty years as after the experiment the children were earning 25% more than the control group and at the thirty year follow-up they now earned 43% more per hour.

Sally Grantham-McGregor
I mean at the time when we started I was just desperate to make an improvement at all.  But with the long-term follow-up showing such benefits it’s incredibly encouraging. The challenge now is to do it at scale, reach more children.

Narrator
Versions of the Jamaican programme have now been set up across the world. One of the most recent is in China. Thanks to rapid industrial development many people here have lifted themselves out of poverty meaning the country has a high rate of what is known as absolute mobility but your chances of moving from the lowest rungs of the income ladder to the top are still very low.

Idrees Kahloon
It’s possible to have a society with high absolute mobility but still very low relative mobility and you can think of emerging market economies like India and China. China in particular has taken 800 million people out of extreme poverty in the last few decades but it is an incredibly unequal society as well.

Narrator
It’s not just when and what you are taught as a child which can determine your life chances.  It’s also where you are brought up. 

- Seattle, USA

Narrator
In America even moving a few blocks can make all the difference.

Dawn
This is the street I lived on, it literally looks like an alley.

Narrator
Dawn used to live in one of the poorer areas of Seattle.

Dawn
You kind of feel worthless you know, being here. You don’t think much of yourself being here.

Narrator
But thanks to a ground breaking programme she has moved to a new part of the city.

It’s like the kids who made fun of me in sixth grade saying that you microwave your chicken to warm it up.

Dawn
It partly kind of saved me a little bit because it has finally allowed me to feel like things are getting better, everything that I have been doing all these years are leading up to a better life.

Narrator
Under the scheme people who receive housing vouchers to help cover their rent are supported and helped with the costs of moving to areas of greater opportunity. It’s part funded by the Gates oundation and based on the work of a group of economists. Using decades of data from the Censor’s Bureau they built a so-called opportunity Atlas for America. It’s a heat map tracking how much children born in the late 70’s and early 80’s would go on to earn as adults. According to the Atlas data where you grow up really matters. If you grew up in a low income family in Harding County, South Dakota for example, you can expect to earn much more than your parents. But if you were raised in Hoke County, North Carolina your household income at 35 is likely to be just $22,000. Among the lowest in America.

John N Friedman - Economics Professor, Brown University
The pattern that jumps out is the incredibly high mobility rates of the great planes and upper mid-west. If you ask many people what’s the highest mobility place to grow up in the country, they will often say you know, very highly educated cities on the coast but the highest mobility rates by far are in places like Iowa and Nebraska. These are places where children from low income families really have just outstanding outcomes.

Narrator
It’s not entirely clear what makes these places engines of opportunity. The researchers think it’s connected to role models. Most of the areas of greatest opportunity have a high number of two parent families as well as good schools and low levels of segregation. According to the Atlas data, children growing up in Dawn’s old area can expect to earn $12,000 a year less than those who grow up in her new neighbourhood.

Dawn
I literally feel like I am one of the lottery winners.

Narrator
But even the schemes advocates acknowledge moving people to better places is simply too costly and labour intensive to be a scalable solution to improve social mobility.

John N Friedman
This is never going to be a broad based solution because we can’t just move everyone around but on the other hand if you even just take the incredibly narrow view that children who grow up in higher opportunity neighbourhoods will themselves grow up to earn more as adults and pay more taxes as adults, you can actually get the programme to pay for itself due to these higher outcomes.

Narrator
Moving up the social ladder isn’t just about increasing your earnings. It can also be linked to something which is harder to quantify, social capital. The invisible networks that help perpetuate the advantages those from wealthy backgrounds enjoy.

Sophie Pender
Social capital is having people that you can turn to. Oh do you know somebody in this industry? Oh can you help me with this CV. The really kind of like subtle favours that people can call upon.

Narrator
Sophie may be successful now but she is keenly aware of the importance of social connections which she lacked when she started out.

Sophie Pender
I think that I had gone to Uni expecting to make friends on the basis of my academic interests and my intellect and what I realised was that actually University was this like extension of this public school system that exists in the UK and it was really strange to me, I didn’t have the networks, people would make comments about my accent, they would say, you sound really Essexy, you sound really chavvy.

Narrator
Sophie has founded a group dedicated to changing this.

So we’re going to let the defences down, let the side down, that’s nice yeah.

Narrator
This is the 93% Club. So called after the 93% of students who attend state schools in Britain.

Sophie Pender
Effectively what we are doing is we are packaging up privilege, the kind of privilege that you can’t see that is definitely operating in our society and we give it back to students from lower social economic backgrounds.

Narrator
Today members are having head shots taken for LinkedIn profiles as well as meeting professional mentors from some of Britain’s most successful firms.

And actually you know, something that you think sounds quite mundane but if you explain to someone why that was the most challenging thing you did, it will come across way better.

The 93% Club now has nearly fifty branches in Universities across the UK.  For some of the newer recruits the group has been a lifeline.

Whether you realise it or not, your class or your upbringing ends up playing such a pivotal role in the rest of your life.

It gives us the opportunities and trains you for example, a private school parent might check the CV for the child but for example, someone like me, I can’t get my mother or father to check my CV because of the fact they are not educated enough.

It will take more than passionate individuals to improve social mobility. It requires Governments to commit to improving both access to education and wealth redistribution. It’s a huge tasks but the post-Pandemic world offers a unique opportunity for change.

John N Friedman
Social mobility and more generally income and equality has really come to the fore of the policy discussion. If there is a silver lining of the Pandemic, sometimes it takes a big shock like this in order to really get people focussed on all of these inequalities. I think we have dramatically expanded what might be possible over the last year relative the way people thought about these problems fifteen or twenty years ago.

 

Idrees Kahloon
Hi I’m Idrees Kahloon and I’m the Washington correspondent for The Economist. If you would like to read my briefing on social mobility then please click on the link that’s opposite me and if you would like to watch more of our Now&Next series, then please click on the other link. Thank you very much for watching and please don’t forget to subscribe.

How can we help you?
Help

How can we help you?

Subscribe: I'd like to keep in touch

If your enquiry is urgent please call +44 20 3321 7000

COVID-19 Enquiry

I'm a client

I'm looking for advice

Something else