New research on the ‘glass floor’ presents a striking way to understand socioeconomic inequality in the UK. It also highlights ever-present problems in translating such information into policy: we understand the size of the problem well, speculate on its cause badly, and produce vague calls for government action ineffectively. Our initial shock and enthusiasm for policy change translates into disenchantment with yet another ‘too difficult’ problem.
The UK Government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has released new research on the life chances of the British population. It identifies a “’glass floor’ in British society” to reject the idea that people get on in life through hard work and merit. Instead, mediocre and lazy children in the right family will do better than bright and hardworking children in the wrong family.
This is horrible paraphrasing of the report, but you get the idea about how most people might notice the report in a hurry, have their beliefs about the lack of a British meritocracy reinforced, then complain that the government is doing enough about it. There wasn’t quite a public outcry (far from it), but you might be forgiven for thinking that the report gives the government plenty of reason to do something. The big question is: will it do anything new with the information?
I wouldn’t rule it out, but would exercise this note of caution: reports like this don’t speak for themselves or give governments a clear impetus to act. Instead, they form part of a larger pattern in this area (of socio-economic inequalities policy), in which we can speak with much more certainty about the size of the problem than (a) its cause, (b) how we should respond, and (c) who exactly should respond.
The size of the problem
The size of the problem is quantified well (it’s not a simple task to measure cognitive ability, class backgrounds and life chances like this) and easy to understand. For example, the commission’s press release states that:
‘Less able, better-off kids are 35% more likely to become high earners than bright poor kids … children from more advantaged social backgrounds who are assessed at age 5 as having low cognitive ability are nonetheless significantly more likely to become high earners than their high ability peers in lower income households. Children from high income backgrounds who show signs of low academic ability at age 5 are 35% more likely to be high earners as adults than children from poorer families who show early signs of high ability’.
The cause of the problem
This is when things get a bit trickier, because although the chair of the commission, Alan Milburn, describes ‘a social scandal that all too often demography is still destiny in Britain’, the commission is not entirely clear on who or what caused it. There is not one simple message about a single villain. Instead, there are at least two, and both stories are not crystal clear.
First, the author of the report, Dr Abigail McKnight, links the outcomes to the behaviour of certain parents:
“The fact that middle class families are successful in hoarding the best opportunities in the education system and in the labour market is a real barrier to the upward social mobility of less advantaged children.”
The keyword there is ‘hoarding’, which suggests inappropriately selfish behaviour. Yet, the chair of the commission, Alan Milburn, is keen not to blame parents: ‘No one should criticise parents for doing their best for their children. That’s what we all want’.
Instead, Milburn sort of blames the government for its current lack of proportionate action: ‘The government should make its core mission the levelling of the playing field so that every child in the country has an equal opportunity to go as far as their abilities can take them’.
The result is a mixed view about the cause of the problem – perhaps it’s the fault of some hoarding parents (the especially rich ones sending their kids to private schools, getting tutors and securing internships for their children) and not so much others (the ones using their own skills to secure a spot for their child in a good state school) – and maybe the solution is to give other parents some of these skills to ‘level the playing field’ a bit.
The realistic solution
This is when things get even trickier, because the report seems to call for the government to do far more than it will, while giving it the ability to say that it is already doing as much as it should.
In the ‘far more than it will’ column is the call to reduce socio-economic inequalities (through wealth and income redistribution?), remove differences in quality between schools, and remove class-based barriers to University admissions.
In the ‘sort of doing it already’ column is the call for the state to intervene early in people’s lives to, in effect, train disadvantaged parents in how to give their children things like ‘soft skills’ related to forming networks and spotting opportunities.
The ultimate complication
The final, and perhaps trickiest, obstacle is about working out who is in charge of taking the next step, to drive this new policy agenda forward. The final paragraph of the main report is instructive:
‘If politicians are serious about their expressed desire to increase social mobility in the UK they will need to address barriers that are preventing less advantaged children from reaching their full potential and remove barriers that block downward mobility’.
It doesn’t say who the politicians are – perhaps for good reason. In areas such as social and economic inequality, it is increasingly difficult to know who is responsible for policy progress. If it’s mainly about economic redistribution, you can call for action from central government – but, let’s be honest, this won’t get you very far. If it’s mainly about training and encouraging ‘soft skills’ like ‘resilience’, central government might produce a broad strategy document, but its localism agenda suggests that it expects local public bodies to take responsibility for social outcomes.
The overall message is that it takes us seconds to understand the problem and call for government action, but a lot longer to decide what we want them to do, and longer still to find the people likely to do it. By that time, our attention will probably have shifted elsewhere, until the next report comes out and we do it all over again. Maybe this time will be different.