Social mobility desperately needs to be top of the national policy agenda

Research shows the UK is a lot less socially mobile than other countries and this problem needs to be prioritised.

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Research shows that the UK is a lot less socially mobile than Australia and Canada and this fallback needs to be addressed.

Social-mobilityThe deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has made social mobility central to his strategy to differentiate the Lib Dems from the Tories and yesterday Alan Milburn, chair of the government’s social mobility and child poverty commission, launched his latest report.

The current social mobility lexicon bristles with terms such as ‘fairness’ and ‘enhancing life chances’ – yet as Zoe Williams pointed out in last week’s Guardian:

Even if social mobility was achieved, what is so great about a society in which the outliers of each class can move relatively freely up and down the hierarchy? What’s so great about being able to escape the gutter, when the bulk of people are still in it?

Part of the reason that class has become so ossified is that, in this time of great inequality, the consequences of dropping from any given class to the one below it are severe…

No wonder people try to lock in their privilege by paying for education. The only rational solution to that is to work towards a time when there is less difference between the classes.

The interplay between social inequality and social mobility is therefore crucial. Social mobility, defined as moving up the ladder in employment, status and income terms, has stalled in the UK. Rich parents still tend to have rich children and poor parents have poor children. More equal countries, like those in Scandinavia, have greater levels of social mobility.

As income and wealth inequalities have widened in the UK and the USA over the last thirty years, social mobility has slowed. The UK has the least socially mobile population of the G8 group of industrialised economies directly correlating to widening inequality between the wealthiest.


See also:

Time for Clegg to bridge the early intervention gap and act on social mobility 15 May 2012

Five reasons Clegg can’t stand on his social mobility record 12 Jan 2012

Can Clegg deliver on his social mobility pledges? 21 Sep 2011


The case of social housing is particularly pertinent since the tenure houses many on low incomes, new research by the Human City Institute shows. The creation of the Social Housing and Social Mobility (SMASH) Parliamentary Taskforce, led by Lord Best, former head of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, underscores the importance of studying the sector.

HCI’s research shows that over the last thirty years, economic activity in social housing has declined from about half of all tenants to about one third. And the proportion of tenants in professional and managerial employment has halved. Social housing is an increasingly residualised tenure which has adversely affected tenants’ life chances.

Links between geographical and social mobility in social housing and the costs of this reduced mobility to the economy and the welfare system have been estimated at around £1 billion annually of which about 30 per cent is linked to labour market immobility.

Key factors affecting social mobility in social housing are income levels, access to education at primary, secondary and tertiary levels, control of assets, access to affordable credit, and intergenerational transmission of wealth, skills and support.

Unfortunately, social housing tenants score badly on all. Half of tenants have household incomes below £10,000. Access to primary and secondary education is increasingly determined by an ability to compete in the home ownership market.

Access to tertiary education for those on low incomes has been curbed by increased university fees and the abolition of the education maintenance allowance. Two thirds of social housing tenants have no savings at all. Of those who do, almost half have less than £1,000.

Social landlords invest £500 million annually in community initiatives to support economic activity and to tackle poverty.

Yet without the commitment by government to reduce the yawning wealth and income gap, to invest in community-based employment and training widely and deeply and to enable low income households to accumulate assets, social inequality between tenants and others and their upwards mobility in the jobs market are unlikely to improve and their life chances remain poorer than those in other tenures.


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