Is Social Mobility on the Decline?
By Michael Barone
Has a fairer America also become an America with less social mobility? That is the uncomfortable question raised by John Parker's long American survey in The Economist last month.
"A decline in social mobility would run counter to Americans' deepest beliefs about their country," Parker writes. "Unfortunately, that is what seems to be happening. Class is reappearing in a new form."
This was the conclusion, as well, of a recent series of articles in The New York Times -- although, as the Times and Parker both note, polls show that Americans think their chances of moving up are better than a generation ago. Statistics tell a different story: There is a higher correlation today between parents' and children's income than in the 1980s, and the income gap between college graduates and non-graduated doubled between 1979 and 1997.
"America," concludes Parker, "is becoming a stratified society based on education: a meritocracy."
Parker's view parallels that of another Brit, Ferdinand Mount, former editor of the Times Literary Supplement, in his 2004 book, "Mind the Gap: The New Class Divide in Britain." Mount notes that income inequality has been increasing in Britain, not just during the Thatcherite 1980s, but since Tony Blair's New Labor government took office in 1997 -- much to the dismay of many Labor ministers. He notes also that Britons are not converging on one lifestyle -- Uppers and Downers, as he calls them, still dress differently and speak with different accents -- and that Britain, more open to upward mobility in the past than popular legend would have it, is becoming less so.
This he partly blames on the abolition by equality-minded Laborites years ago of the academically demanding grammar schools that were the routes out of the working class for so many Labor politicians themselves.
"We cannot help noticing," Mount concludes, "that the old class system has been reconstituted into a more or less meritocratic upper tier and a lower tier which is defined principally by its failure to qualify for the upper tier."
Which is exactly what Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray predicted for America in their controversial book "The Bell Curve," published 11 years ago. Herrnstein and Murray noted that intelligence is both measurable and in some large but unquantifiable part hereditary, an unexceptionable finding for experimental psychologists but maddening to social engineers. As college education becomes open to all with the requisite intelligence, graduates will tend to marry graduates and produce children with similar intelligence, while others will tend to produce children without it.
"Unchecked, these trends," Herrnstein and Murray wrote, "will lead the U.S. toward something resembling a caste society, with the underclass mired ever more firmly at the bottom and the cognitive elite ever more firmly anchored at the top."
Which leads to the question children ask on long car trips: Are we there yet? Mount says Britain is and Parker says America may well be. And maybe so.
Yet should we be so gloomy about this? The British have tended to see their society as a one-ladder system, with Oxford and Cambridge graduates at the top and lavatory cleaners at the bottom. Yet in America (and I think in Britain, too), there are many ladders upward, with many intermediate rungs. Not everyone has an emotional need to be on top: How many people, if they thought seriously about it, would really want the burdens of a CEO, however lavish the pay?
Meritocracy may leave people with no one to blame for failure. But, as Herrnstein and Murray argued, almost all Americans have the ability "to find valued places in society."
And that depends not so much on intelligence as on personal behavior. Here, perhaps, we are coping with meritocracy already. New York Times columnist David Brooks points out that since 1993, we have seen declines in violent crime, family violence, teenage births, abortions, child poverty, drunken driving, teenage sex, teenage suicide and divorce. We are seeing increases in test scores and, as Parker notes, in membership in voluntary associations.

As Murray has written, all you need to do to avoid poverty in this country is to graduate from high school, get and stay married, and take any job. The intelligence needed to get a place in the cognitive elite may become more concentrated in a fair meritocratic society, but the personal behaviors needed to find a valued place in society are available to everyone.
Meritocracy may mean less mobility, but that is bearable if, as Brooks says, "America is becoming more virtuous."
© Copyright 2005 Creators Syndicate