Intergenerational social mobility

A crucial part of social cohesion is the prospect of social mobility across generations. A social order in which individuals are stuck in their social position as a result of the lack of social assets of their parents is one which lacks legitimacy for an important part of its population. (Here are a few earlier posts on social mobility in the United States; link, link.) This observation raises several crucial questions. How do we measure social mobility? What obstacles stand in the way of social mobility for some segments of a given population? And what mechanisms exist to increase the pace of social mobility for a given society?

Raj Chetty and his colleagues have profoundly changed the terrain for social scientists interested in these questions through a striking new approach. Their work is presented on the Equality of Mobility website (link). The map above shows that there are very sizable regional differences in social mobility rates, from the deep south to the plains states and upper midwest.

Of particular interest is the light their research sheds on the role that post-secondary education plays in social mobility. A summary of their findings is presented in an NBER research paper, “Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility” (link). Here is a statement of their approach:

We take a step toward answering these questions by using administrative data covering all college students from 1999-2013 to construct publicly available mobility report cards – statistics on students’ earnings outcomes and their parents’ incomes – for each college in America.1 We use de-identified data from federal income tax returns and the Department of Education to obtain information on college attendance, students’ earnings in their early thirties, and their parents’ household incomes.2 In our baseline analysis, we focus on children born between 1980 and 1982 – the oldest children whom we can reliably link to parents – and assign children to colleges based on the college they attend most between the ages of 19 and 22. We then show that our results are robust to a range of alternative specifications, such as measuring children’s incomes at the household instead of individual level, using alternative definitions of college attendance, and adjusting for differences in local costs of living.

Their research involves linking federal tax returns for two generations of individuals in order to establish the relationship between the parents’ income group and the child’s income group after college. (The tax data are de-identified so that the privacy of the individuals is protected.) The Equality of Mobility website includes downloadable datasets for the report cards for several thousand post-secondary institutions.

A highlight of this analysis is the very substantial impact on social mobility created by regional public universities.

The colleges that have the highest bottom-to-top-quintile mobility rates – i.e., those that offer both high success rates and low-income access – are typically mid-tier public institutions. For instance, many campuses of the City University of New York (CUNY), certain California State colleges, and several campuses in the University of Texas system have mobility rates above 6%. Certain community colleges, such as Glendale Community College in Los Angeles, also have very high mobility rates; however, a number of other community colleges have very low mobility rates because they have low success rates. Elite private (Ivy-Plus) colleges have an average mobility rate of 2.2%, slightly above the national median: these colleges have the best outcomes but, as discussed above, also have very few students from low-income families. Flagship public institutions have fairly low mobility rates on average (1.7%), as many of them have relatively low rates of access. Mobility rates are not strongly correlated with differences in the distribution of college majors, endowments, instructional expenditures, or other institutional characteristics. This is because the characteristics that correlate positively with children’s earnings outcomes (e.g., selectivity or expenditures) correlate negatively with access, leading to little or no correlation with mobility rates. The lack of observable predictors of mobility rates underscores the value of directly examining students’ earnings outcomes by college as we do here, but leaves the question of understanding the production and selection technologies used by high-mobility-rate colleges open for future work. (3-4)

These are by and large the institutions that constitute the membership of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (link). AASCU institutions are distinguished by the commitment that they commonly share to enhancing access for under-serviced members of society, and to contributing to social mobility in the regions and states that they serve. These values are expressed in the American Democracy Project (link). The evidence of the Chetty project appears to validate the achievement of that mission.

There are additional questions that one would like to be able to answer using the kinds of data that Chetty and his colleagues have considered. Central among these have to do with other measures of social mobility. The definition of social mobility in use here is transition from the bottom quintile of income to the top quintile of income in one generation. But it would be illuminating to consider less dramatic social movement as well — for example, from the bottom quintile to the middle quintile.

This research underlines the critical importance of public higher education in the United States. We need to do a better job of supporting public universities so that the cost of higher education is not so heavily skewed towards tuition revenues. The benefits of public universities are certainly of value to the individual graduates and their families. But the increased social mobility enabled by many public universities also enhances democratic legitimacy at a time when many institutions are under attack.

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Running on empty

We’ve been focusing on the 1 percent and the 99 percent for the past year, thanks to the Occupy movement. But here’s another way of slicing American society — right down the middle. How is the 50 percent doing these days? 

The answer seems to be, not very well. And the conservative assault on the social safety net pretty much guarantees that this part of American society will do even worse in the coming years. Poverty is concentrated in this half of America, both adult and child; the percentage of uninsured people is high; and the median income has dropped significantly since 2000. The inequalities that have worsened in the US since 1980 have hurt the bottom half significantly. 

Here is a summary from USAToday in 2011 (link):

Median household income fell 2.3% to $49,445 last year and has dropped 7% since 2000 after adjusting for inflation, the Census Bureau said Tuesday. Income was the lowest since 1996.

Poverty rose, too. The share of people living in poverty hit 15.1%, the highest level since 1993, and 2.6 million more people moved into poverty, the most since Census began keeping track in 1959.

The poverty statistic is stunning: it implies that 30 percent of the bottom 50 percent are officially living in poverty — almost one-third.

So how do the bottom half of Americans do when it comes to health insurance? The Kaiser Family Foundation provides a major data source on rates of uninsured adults by income group (link). Here is a data snapshot for uninsured non-elderly Americans by income:

This shows that 58% of non-elderly Americans with income below 250% of the Federal poverty line are uninsured, while 12% of non-elderly Americans between 250% and 400% of FPL are uninsured. Only 5% of non-elderly Americans with income in excess of 400% of the Federal poverty line are uninsured. 

What does this distribution of uninsured status across income imply for the bottom half of Americans? This requires some calculation.  Here are the Federal poverty lines for 2011 (link):

A household of 4 persons has a Federal poverty line of $22,350 on this standard, so 250% of this is $55,875 — a bit above the median household income for 2011.  So lack of health insurance is heavily concentrated in the bottom 50 percent.

Home foreclosure is another reality in middle income America. Foreclosure has been a reality across full range of the income spectrum since 2008.  But it appears to be more devastating in the bottom half of the income distribution.  (This is evident in Detroit and Southeast Michigan.)

What is our society doing about these basic realities?  Not very much.  And, of course, a major candidate for President is on record: “I’m not concerned about the very poor” (link).  One would hope that the bottom 50 percent think very carefully about which political platform best serves their real interests, including maintenance of a social safety net, aggressive and effective efforts to stimulate job growth, tax reform that requires the affluent to pay their fair share, and preservation of the broadened health insurance coverage promised by the 2010 health care reform legislation.

(Here is a piece in the New York Times on median income; link.)

The moral basis for an extensive state

A recent post focused on the conception of society involved in seventeenth and eighteenth English political thinking, the theory of possessive individualism.  The post suggested that this conception has a lot of resonance with the ideas and rhetoric of the Tea Party today.  I’ve also posted a number of discussions of the social ideals of John Rawls (linklink), expressing a liberal democratic view of the good society.  These posts remind me how important it is to have some fairly specific ideas about how we would want society to be organized in the future, so we can also have some ideas about current reforms that might take us in that direction.  And today we don’t seem to have a lot of clarity about this kind of vision, especially on the progressive side of the political spectrum.

The ideal that seems to lie behind the conservative Tea Party political philosophy is simple but alarming:

  1. Citizens should have maximum possible liberties of activity and use of property.
  2. Citizens have no positive obligations to other citizens, beyond those associated with respecting liberties and property rights.
  3. The state exists only to secure the liberties and security of citizens; this means the state needs to have funds to provide for national defense, enforcement of property rights, and maintenance of public order.
  4. The state has no legitimate basis for creating more extensive regulations on the exercise of liberty and property (FDA, EPA, regulation of banks, …).  Such regulations represent an unjustified interference with the exercise of private property rights.
  5. The state has no legitimate basis for using tax moneys to provide a social safety net (unemployment payments, welfare payments, food and housing subsidies, …).  Such transfer programs represent an unjustified system of redistribution of wealth and income that violates the property rights of anyone who is taxed more extensively than a fair share of the costs of providing for national defense and maintenance of public order.

This political philosophy is familiar from Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974).  At the time Nozick’s vision was considered extreme from a philosophical point of view; it took to a logical limit the very limited assumptions about individual rights that were a part of the Lockean tradition of political philosophy, and arrived at what was then a very startling set of conclusions about the limits on legitimate state action.  Nozick referred to this conception as the “minimal state”.  Nozick’s philosophy expressed a form of libertarian conservativism, with no inclination towards the “social values” of more recent conservatism.

If this political philosophy were to be enacted through legislation, it would imply a number of things: abolition of mandatory social security, abolition of regulatory agencies like EPA and FDA, abolition of unemployment benefits and poverty-based welfare programs, and dramatic reduction of taxes on the affluent.  This is a vision of the minimal state with a vengeance; and it seems rather familiar from much of the rhetoric offered by Tea Party activists and Republican presidential candidates alike.

We could spend time thinking about the deficiencies of this political philosophy from a number of points of view.  Here my interest is different; I’d like to consider what components might go into a political philosophy that expresses a moral justification for the more extensive state that a great many Americans would want to have. First, what are the institutional arrangements that might be considered?

A strong alternative to the minimal state is the Nordic model — essentially the political and economic system associated with Scandinavian democracies in the 1960s through the 1980s.  Here is an interesting monograph on the economic and social characteristics of the Nordic model: The Nordic Model: Embracing globalization and sharing risks (Torben M. Andersen, Bengt Holmström, Seppo Honkapohja, Sixten Korkman, Hans Tson Söderström, Juhana Vartiainen; published by the Research Institute of the Finnish Economy); link.  The authors describe the key economic and social commitments of the Nordic model in these terms:

  • a comprehensive welfare state with an emphasis on transfers to households and publicly provided social services financed by taxes, which are high notably for wage income and consumption;
  • a lot of public and/or private spending on investment in human capital, including child care and education as well as research and development (R&D);
  • and a set of labour market institutions that include strong labour unions and employer associations, significant elements of wage coordination, relatively generous unemployment benefits and a prominent role for active labour market policies. (13)

A key goal of the study is to assess the economic performance of the Nordic model over the past fifty years.  The study’s summary conclusion is very favorable: contrary to anti-tax, anti-government ideology, the Nordic economies have performed very well.

The Nordic countries have, according to many indicators, succeeded relatively well in fulfilling their social ambitions. Recently, this has been combined with a satisfactory economic performance in terms of employment and productivity levels as well as growth of GDP per capita. Also, the macroeconomic balance is good and public finances are strong. There is indeed a Nordic success story in the sense of a favourable combination of economic efficiency and social equality.

True, the Nordics went through a period of low productivity growth in the 1970s (like most other OECD countries) as well as a major financial and macroeconomic crisis with very high unemployment rates and large fiscal imbalances in the early 1990s (somewhat earlier and less dramatically in the case of Denmark). But even so, the Nordics have more or less managed to keep up with the US in terms of PPP-adjusted GDP over the last 25–30 years, which is more than can be said of most other EU15 countries. The longterm performance is mainly recorded as a high rate of total factor productivity growth. This indicates that technical progress, notably in the area of information and communication technology (IT), has played in important role in growth. More importantly, it also shows that the Nordics – contrary to popular belief – demonstrate a high degree of economic flexibility and capacity of structural change. The macroeconomic crises have helped the process by inducing growth-enhancing changes in structural policies (and, for a while, through the improvements of competitiveness caused by large depreciations in the early 1990s). (15)

These are social and economic arrangements that establish an active state, a state with broad responsibilities to the welfare of its citizens, and a state that calls upon a significant fraction of the wealth of society to do its work.  What are the moral principles that might underly such a conception of a good society?  Here are a few axioms that seem to be worth considering within such a political philosophy.

  1. Society is a system of interdependency and mutual benefit for all citizens. Everyone benefits from being part of a just society.
  2. The moral situation of individuals in society includes several important components:
    1. Individuals within society have rights, liberties, and needs for personal security.
    2. Individuals have obligations to each other to help prevent hardship and to facilitate full human development. These obligations derive from at least two sources: (a) the benefits we all enjoy as a result of social cooperation in a functioning society; and (b) the moral recognition we have of the equal human worth and dignity of fellow citizens.
    3. Individuals within society have universal needs to facilitate their full human development and functioning, including education, health care, housing, and adequate nutrition.
  3. Certain core functions for the state follow from these moral ideas:
    1. The state is obligated to create a system of law that protects the rights, liberties, and security needs of all citizens.
    2. The state is obligated to serve as one of the important vehicles through which our positive obligations to other citizens are honored.
      1. The state needs to ensure that all citizens have access to education, healthcare, and the essentials of life.
      2. The state needs to provide a safety net for citizens whose earnings within the market economy leave them unable to provide for a decent standard of living.
    3. The state is obligated to protect the public from the harmful effects of private activities, including regulations concerning health and safety, conditions of labor, and environmental harms.
  4. A handful of moral constraints surround the policies and laws the state may adopt:
    1. The state is authorized to collect taxes to efficiently perform its functions of protecting rights, securing welfare, and regulating harmful activities.
    2. The state is obligated to be procedurally just and economically efficient in its administration of public programs.
    3. The policies and laws of the state need to be adopted through a democratic process in which all citizens have equal voice.

This formulation highlights a cluster of values that can potentially gain wide support within a democracy: the equal worth of all individuals, the importance of liberty, the importance of a range of social obligations all citizens have to each other, and the idea that the state needs to be articulated in such a way as to embody these moral ideas.

If the theory of the minimal state owes much of its content to John Locke, the more extensive state described here owes much of its moral rationale to Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Rousseau brought the moral perspective of the “individual within community” into the foundations of political philosophy.  Josh Cohen’s Rousseau: A Free Community of Equals provides an excellent discussion of Rousseau’s political theory; link.

(Gosta Esping-Andersen has studied the politics and policies of social democracies through a lifetime of writing. Especially important are The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism and Politics Against Markets: The Social Democratic Road to Power.)

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