Inequality and Perceived Social Mobility

The leading presidential candidate in Chile, Sebastian Piñera, has proposed increasing the money the government gives to poor families to pay for school tuition. Like school vouchers in the U.S.

When this issue came up in a recent lecture I attended on Chilean politics, there was audible disapproval from people in the room. A French woman said that such policies create inequality in the education market and lead to greater income inequality in society at large. A Swiss and German nodded vigorously as the French woman spoke.

Europeans tend to focus on inequality. Latin Americans, too. Inequality is one of the top issues being debated right now in the Chilean election season.

Americans, on the other hand, by and large are not very concerned with inequality. Sure, it comes up and people talk about narrowing the gap. But deep down I don't think most policy makers and pundits think it's a core problem in a society. We continue to glorify the rich to a remarkable extent.

Why the contrasting views? It comes down to differing perceptions of how possible it is to go from poor to rich. If you believe there's a high level of social mobility in a society, you're not as bothered by a gap. If you think moving up the ladder is nigh impossible, it is a very big problem indeed, because it means the poor are stuck at the bottom, oftentimes due to rotten luck at birth.

Historically, Latin America has been a place where your last name weighs heavily on your success. "Meritocracy" is not the first word that leaps to mind when thinking about the rich and successful in the region. Europe, too, has a legacy of aristocracy and old money.

The American idea however is about the self-made man; the man who pulls himself up by his bootstraps and in a lifetime goes from very poor to very rich thanks to his own industriousness and imagination. There is a belief held by natives and immigrants alike in Horartio Alger stories. Social mobility in the States is not as great as people think, research suggests, but perception trumps all, right? A national narrative embedded in a culture commands a magnetic pull over everyone.

Bottom Line: How worried you are about inequality is driven in part by how much social mobility you think there is in society. Europeans and Chileans (and probably other Latin Americans) generally worry more than Americans about inequality because they do not perceive their societies as being as meritocratic and as amendable to upward social mobility.

(thanks to Pablo Gonzalez for helping brainstorm this post)

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The inequality in Chile is inter-generational. 30-40 year olds are rich, 50-60 year olds are comparatively poor. This is an important distinction. See this paper (in Spanish) by economist Claudio Sapelli for more.

Also, check out Will Wilkinson's self-recommending paper titled Thinking Clearly about Economic Inequality. In the summary he says, "There is little evidence that high levels of income inequality lead down a slippery slope to the destruction of democracy and rule by the rich."

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