Can Clegg deliver on his social mobility pledges?

In his speech to the Lib Dem conference today, Nick Clegg pledged to do more for social mobility; One Society’s Larissa Hansford looks at he challenges he faces.

In his speech today, Nick Clegg told us “every child can do good things, great things, if only we give them the opportunities they deserve”, calling for “social mobility – for fairer chances, for real freedom”; One Society’s Larissa Hansford assesses the challenges he faces

Social mobility is certainly an important part of creating the meritocratic society successive governments have been trying to achieve. When only one in nine children with parents from low income backgrounds reach the top income quartile, but nearly half of those with parents from the top quartile stay put, social mobility is clearly a problem that must be tackled.

But Nick Clegg must realise this will have little effect if he doesn’t also work to tackle the underlying cause: the UK’s unusually-high levels of income inequality have a nasty tendency to prevent meritocracy, both sealing people out at the bottom, and sealing them in at the top.

At the bottom, escaping low pay is made highly challenging by the ‘low-pay, no-pay cycle’, which traps significant numbers of people in the kind of low paid, low-quality work that fails to provide the stability needed to make the transition to better-paid, higher-skilled jobs.

Low wages can also prevent young people having the sort of home life that encourages and supports ambition, by causing many parents to work such long hours that family life is damaged. Poverty and tensions in family life are clearly likely to have significant impacts on a child’s academic attainment, promote negative perceptions of work as a route to prosperity, and prevent families from acquiring the necessary savings to fund training or enterprise .

At the top, people are similarly “sealed off”, but for the opposite reasons. The wealthy are able to buy their children the tickets to success (including schooling and savings) and have the right contacts to help them along the way.

Nick Clegg has correctly identified some of the levers by which the children of the affluent monopolise career opportunities (internships being the most obvious example), but unless the effect of income gaps in cutting off the top and bottom from the rest of society are addressed, there will always be tickets to success that are hoarded by some and unknown to others.

As an IFS study pointed out it is:

“…likely to be very hard to increase social mobility without tackling inequality.”

This government does have opportunities to reverse the growing income gap. Vince Cable tackling the growing pay ratios could be one such opportunity; but Nick Clegg is likely to find that efforts to increase social mobility will have very marginal effects unless its causes are addressed.

See also:

Nick Clegg and the social mobility mysterySunder Katwala, November 24th 2010

Tackling inequality is key to improving social mobility, Mr CleggDuncan Exley, April 5th 2011

Coalition policy is a programme not for social mobility but for social engineeringSally Hunt, June 1st 2011

Does social mobility reduce income inequality?Lee Savage, March 14th 2011

The social mobility policy challenges for Willetts and his governmentLee Savage, September 8th 2011

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