Tag Archives: mobility

Is Economic Mobility Destined to be a Zero Sum Game?

Harvard Gate Photo by Flickr User Patricia Drury

Harvard Gate Photo by Flickr User Patricia Drury


In the New York Times, Richard V. Reeves is smacking sacred cows, positing that there is no way for everyone to win in our society. Writing on “The Glass-Floor Problem,” Reeves looks at mobility and “sticky floors,” noting:

It is a stubborn mathematical fact that the top fifth of the income distribution can accommodate only 20 percent of the population. If we want more poor kids climbing the ladder of relative mobility, we need more rich kids sliding down the chutes.

Even the most liberal parents are unlikely to be comfortable with the idea that their own children should fall down the scale in the name of making room for a smarter kid from a poorer home. They invest large amounts of economic, social and cultural capital to keep their own children high up the social scale. As they should: there is nothing wrong with parents doing the best by their children.

The problem comes if institutional frameworks in, say, the higher education system or the labor market are distorted in favor of the powerful — a process the sociologist Charles Tilly labeled “opportunity hoarding.” The less talented children of the affluent are able to defy social gravity and remain at the top of the ladder, reducing the number of places open to those from less fortunate backgrounds.

Many New York Times commenters rejected this framework entirely – the idea that someone else has to lose for another to win was too unsettling to consider. And yet, when we compete in an economy of “elites” and there are limited spots available for the most desired schools, jobs, and neighborhoods, that is exactly what has to happen. However, what interested me more than Reeves’s initial argument was a large piece of his solution: access to more elite colleges.

College matters a lot for social mobility. For someone from a poor background, getting a four-year degree virtually guarantees upward mobility. Elite colleges act as gateways to the best career paths. Getting more poor kids into colleges, and getting the brightest into the best colleges, ought to be a national mission.

In essence, Reeves wants to solve a problem by reinforcing the foundation of the problem. Continue reading