Limits to Social Mobility (by Anonymous Junior)

posted Jun 1, 2017, 7:05 AM by Daniel Laurison

The Dentist: you know, I've heard it said work is for poor people. The rest of us have careers.

me: um. well, I do like my work a lot, that's true enough for me. 

The Dentist: well I think it's true for everyone. No matter what you do, if you're a plumber or a [something; maybe business consultant], you can put your all into it and make it meaningful and move up. 

            This is a simplification of how mobility works in the United States.  The dentist is ignoring several crucial factors, including those that prevent people from moving up the social ladder.  In the United States many people have unequal opportunities.  For example, many struggle in their day to day life to simply find stable housing, as seen in Matthew Desmond’s Evicted.  This, therefore, prevents one from putting one’s all into it. One is greatly taxed with the simple fact of finding housing, as was exemplified by the single mother that had to make about 90 calls in order to find a possibility for housing.  With such a psychological and time-consuming burden, one is unable to properly try to find a job, assuming there is a “step up” in the social ladder from being unemployed to employed.  Many people do not have to do this, and therefore are freer to use their time and energy.

            Another issue many do not have to worry about is having been incarcerated.  Being jailed leads to slower wage growth than non-jailed people.  There are three theories to why this is; one is the stigma that being incarcerated connotes.  When one is considered to have committed a crime and put in jail, they are regarded as “bad”, regardless of whether or not one committed it.  This carries over to the employer, which is less likely to hire an ex-convict.  Another reason for the slower wage growth is that incarceration is detrimental to one’s employable skills, as one is unable to practice them.  Lastly, social networks are also undermined by time and lack of contact; this is brought upon, as well, by being in jail.  Thus having previously been in jail greatly undermines one’s ability to find a job, and thus climb up the social ladder.

            In addition, the dentist is completely ignoring changing socio-economic environments.  Growing up and applying to the labor force during the Great Depression is entirely different than doing so during the post-war boom –between the 50’s and 70’s—, or even than today.  This is properly described through an intergenerational example in Inequality by Design; on pages 208 through 209, the authors describe how the careers of three different generations of males –the Smiths— varied greatly based off of the different social contexts during which they lived in.

            One can also extrapolate this concept to different geographical locations.  As the authors of Inequality by Design state on page 207, social structure is crucial to one’s development.  Thus, just like if one grows up during a wealthier time period for a whole country, if one attends an “ordered and affluent” school, one is more likely to learn than if one attends an impoverished one.  Thus, this environmental effects can greatly influence one’s success in climbing the social ladder (via getting better grades, attending a more prestigious institution and getting a job). Hence, there are multiple factors in society that help one progress, and everyone has different access to these factors.  Therefore, not everyone can move up the social ladder.