Social Mobility Is A Fairy Tale, And Conservatives Want To Keep It That Way

952716_f520One of the interesting things about conservatives is that they often give lip service to sympathy for poor children in this country, but clearly have little to no sympathy for poor adults. Even when it’s not said out loud, I don’t think it’s terribly bold of me to claim that this sympathy differential is present. One merely needs to peruse the comments section of an internet article relating to the situations under which the poor live and work in this country to find plenty of examples of the vitriol. The sympathy for children generally expresses itself as lamenting the bad luck for the kid, to be born to such deadbeats who refuse to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps”.

What’s odd about this difference in attitude is that actual human lives are continuous and poor childhood bleeds into poor adulthood. Not all poor kids wind up as poor adults obviously, but you can’t seriously look at the data and not see pretty straightforward life-cycle class trends. If poor children are sympathetic for some reason owing to bad luck, then it’s hard to understand why poor adults seem to elicit so much disdain and disparagement when it’s clear that the bad luck of being born poor doesn’t disappear at age 18.

What’s so frustrating about upper class kids who go on to become conservative pundits and write stupid stuff about this topic is that, if they had any self awareness at all, they should know all about intergenerational class entrenchment. In most cases, their parents have done everything they can to make sure social mobility remains a myth. Of the nearly 800 school kids Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander followed for 30 years, those who got a better start tended to stay better off, while the more disadvantaged stayed poor.

Out of the original 800 public school children he started with, 33 moved from low-income birth family to a high-income bracket by the time they neared 30. Alexander found that education, rather than giving kids a fighting chance at a better life, simply preserved privilege across generations. Only 4 percent of the low-income kids he met in 1982 had college degrees when he interviewed them at age 28, whereas 45 percent of the kids from higher-income backgrounds did. If it was simply a matter of effort, or aptitude, simple chance and stubbornness would have produced more advanced education than that. There is a resistance to social mobility inherent to the system, and it is most certainly not accidental.

Affluent parents don’t send their kids to the most expensive private prep schools in the country for nothing. That isn’t some random decision, nor is it for bragging rights. They do it to give their kids an edge. The point of this edge is to ensure that their kids out-compete others in their age range (in particular, those who cannot afford such schools) for the scarce number of high-ranking economic and social positions. This is why they pay for Ivy League undergraduate degrees as well. That is why these parents pay for extra tutoring, pay for SAT prep courses, and hire college admissions helpers. That is why they use their knowledge of the college entrance system to make sure their kid is doing the right things starting in grade 9 (or earlier) to win out over others.

Securing social class position across generations is also why affluent parents seem to get especially generous to their alma mater college when their kids hit their teenage years (in order to game the system further with legacy admissions for their offspring). It’s why parents help their kids with professional contacts when they can and pull whatever other connections they have to make sure their kids have the best shots in life. It’s a joke to most about the boss’s kid getting a cushy job simply because he IS the boss’s kid… but the joke stops being funny when it actually occurs. Conservatives may complain about affirmative action, but they generally have no qualms with tipping the scale for their offspring.

From womb to adulthood, rich parents are carefully working to make sure their kids’ lives come out looking the right way. George W. Bush is an excellent example of an academic career where significant and obvious deficiencies were papered over by parental action. People who attend and graduate from Harvard Business School on their own merits generally have enough of a command of the English language to avoid his verbal gaffes.

If you think I am just being biased and cynical about this, listen to Dinesh D’Souza gas on about the topic relating to his daughter:

Why are we doing these things? We are, of course, trying to develop her abilities so that she can get the most out of life. The practical effect of our actions, however, is that we are working to give our daughter an edge–that is, a better chance to succeed than everybody else’s children. Even though we might be embarrassed to think of it this way, we are doing our utmost to undermine equal opportunity. So are all the other parents who are trying to get their children into the best schools, the best colleges, and in general give them the best possible upbringing and education. None of them believes in equal opportunity either!

Affluent parents, in general, want to limit equal opportunity and social mobility as best they can. That’s human nature to a large degree, and not terribly surprising either. What is surprising, though, is the almost total lack of sympathy the beneficiaries of this social machine often display with regards to the poor children who are transformed by this rigged game into poor adults.

Indeed, the lack of sympathy often slides down into active hatred and abuse of these “leeches” on society. Why, the system worked for these scions of affluence; it must be perfectly fine! If it didn’t work for you, you’re just lazy, they claim. Never you mind that, between 1979 and 2007, pay for the bottom 20 percent of American households (adjusted for increased hours worked) rose only 3.2 percent. That’s not per year, that’s in total. It’s hard to compete by working harder when the benefits of working harder are systemically undermined.

The conservative pundits and politicians produced by this process are heinous because they have made it their job to try to convince everyone that we should direct our distribution of wealth so as to deny things like health insurance and adequate income to the poor adults that their parents did their best to create, and instead increase the share for those who have already got the wealth and affluence. These conservatives might make lip service to the American Dream, to the idea that “all men are created equal”, but they do their best to make sure that the barriers to entry are as high and as thick as they can make them.

Jason Francis

Jason Francis is a red-state liberal, residing in the heart of Dixie where he gets to watch the train wreck of conservative politics up close and personal on a regular basis. He's lived in affluence and poverty, in both urban and rural settings, attended both public and private schools, and has visited most of the US at one point or another.


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