What Is the Minimum Investment Needed to Achieve Social Mobility?

April 16, 2016

For those without an inside track, high social/cultural skills are an essential foundation.

Long-time correspondent Bart D. (Australia) posed a profound question: what is the minimum investment (in time, money and effort) needed to ensure one's children have social mobility, i.e. a cultural/social passport to upper-middle class opportunities?

This chart illustrates why the question matters: those in the top rungs of the social mobility ladder are earning far more than the bottom 90%, and their opportunities to achieve more and earn more are also much higher.

Wealth and income inequality are rooted in asymmetries of human, social and cultural capital:

Total Inequality Researchers know that itís expensive to be poor. But they are only beginning to understand the sum of the financial, psychological, and cultural disadvantages that come with poverty.

Here is Bart's framing of the question:

What I struggle with though is how to achieve very low fixed costs without creating undesirable side-effects. My parents were brilliant at it, and Iíve done the best I can to emulate them... but the basics of life and social success require a certain minimum annual investment that is fairly large."

Though the question doesn't have a definitive answer, I think we can list some key attributes of social mobility. (My book Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy can be read as a guide to building the human/social capital needed for social mobility. If you'd like to hear a discussion of the book, host Doug Miller of An Economy of One and I cover mobility and opportunity in the emerging economy (26:08).

1. When we speak of social success/mobility, one minimum is having access to those in the entrepreneurial/ managerial/ professional classes. Those living on "the wrong side of the tracks" (in impoverished neighborhoods) are already at an extreme disadvantage compared to those living in desirable neighborhoods. So social mobility requires enough investment to live in proximity to those with the means to provide portals to opportunity.

2. As Bart noted, there is a generational aspect to this question, and I see it breaking into two distinct parts:

2A. Previous generations enjoyed much lower fixed costs. (By fixed costs, I mean monthly expenses that are not discretionary: housing, healthcare, education, telephony, food, etc.)

As I have written before, a very small sum deducted from my father's paycheck from Sears paid for basic hospitalization/healthcare coverage for his four kids and wife, and housing was cheap, to buy or rent. University tuition at state colleges was also cheap. I was able to pay own tuition, fees and books from 18 on, and was self-supporting from 19, paying for my own rent, auto, utilities, food, etc. (in the mid-1970s) with a part-time job (25-30 hours a week). Few young people can pay rent, auto expenses, food, health insurance and tuition/books with a part-time job today.

2B. Expectations were lower, and more could be accomplished by young people with little to no parental support (like myself and my siblings) by trial and error (mostly error, of course). In other words, the economy and society were more flexible and forgiving; there were more second and third chances. Employers were more willing to give a young person a chance, partly because of the social milieu and partly due to the abundance of entry-level jobs.

3. Though the mainstream focuses almost exclusively on a college diploma (preferably issued by an Ivy League university), this is not the only ticket needed for mobility. A wide range of human and social capital is needed to breach the barriers to upper-middle class opportunity.

4. As correspondent Kevin K. has observed, the real ticket to social success/mobility is having parents and grandparents who are Ivy League alumni, members of exclusive clubs, and otherwise well-connected to wealthy, powerful movers and shakers. We all know how this works in the real world: young (not so accomplished) law student exits law school and is immediately offered a paid internship by his father's associate/fraternity pal, etc. If the firm posts an opening, it's for PR purposes--the son of the insider already got the job. The golden lad will have to mess up big-time to be ejected from the inside track.

Want a Higher Salary? It Helps If You're a Man With Rich Parents

5. For those without an inside track, high social/cultural skills are an essential foundation. When students from under-privileged neighborhoods enter Ivy League schools, they report missing all the cultural references--to classical music, artists, inventors, writers, historians, etc.--that are background cultural knowledge for kids who attended prep school. Children who grow up in households with few books, news and cultural magazines, sketchbooks and pens/paints, music lessons, etc., are impoverished in ways that cannot be captured by standardized tests of math and language.

A young person can set out to acquire all this cultural/social capital, but it takes an especially brave young person to seek out and enter institutions that breathe privilege: museums, opera, symphony, academic lectures, etc.

Familiarity with these worlds is not something that can be acquired just by reading; they must be experienced, and so anyone hoping to give their children maximum opportunities must provide them with a variety of experiential capital in the fields that signify upper-middle class status: the arts, music, multicultural cuisine, etc., and experience in the institutions that anchor this cultural capital.

Much of this cultural capital is only available in urban zones, and this places rural populations at a disadvantage. But parents who insist on art and music lessons, second language study and other experiential capital can compensate for the distance from institutions.

I personally place great stock in learning to play an instrument and in the hands-on practice of art, tradecraft, gardening and cooking. Studies have found that playing music activates different neural pathways than reading or math. The same must be equally true of art, tending animals and gardens, cooking and crafts.

There is a fine line between teaching self-discipline and turning something that should be fun into something onerous. The difference seems to be the parents' engagement in the lessons and the learning, and their own enthusiasm for the subject.

6. The value of this cultural capital is not just in understanding the references tossed around in circles of the over-educated; it's also the foundation of self-confidence, of feeling the equal of anyone rather than feeling inferior.

7. This is the value of team sports and similar group activities; even shy children (count me in that group) gain familiarity with group dynamics that are critical to navigating the higher rungs of social mobility.

8. The value of the practical arts--gardening, cooking, caring for animals, crafts and tradecrafts--is both in the practical skills gained and in the self-confidence nurtured by acquiring a wide spectrum of experiences and basic skills. We naturally avoid what we fear and do not understand, and so the widest possible exposure to the nuts and bolts of the material world--housing, transport, food, etc.--is a critical form of cultural capital.

9. Travel is of course a key signifier of upper-middle class status. One of the first things people will boast about (subtly or unsubtly) in the company of strangers is foreign travel. The significance is financial: foreign travel is costly and requires dedicated blocks of free time.

Setting aside the cost factor, travel is a form of experiential capital that is more than a bragging point. The impoverished rarely get beyond the borders of their impoverishment, while the children of the upper-middle class are always jetting about, either with the family or visiting family, or with groups or exchange programs.

Though we never traveled overseas at all, our family went camping, and this low-cost travel created many wonderful experiences and opportunities for practical training (starting a camp fire, setting up a tent, fishing, etc). Even camping requires a reliable vehicle, of course, and so while it is inexpensive, it still requires the fixed costs of owning, insuring and maintaining a car.

There is no way to summarize such a rich topic in such a short exploration, but the most critical element of human/ social/ cultural capital is building the self-confidence and self-discipline needed to master new subjects and skills on one's own.

There is almost no end to the skills that round out a young person's experiential capital (I would add learning to ride and maintain a 90cc motorcycle and fix an Internet network problem). Though no parent can cram the entire spectrum into their offspring's short childhoods, a variety of experiential capital that gives the child the confidence to learn and master new fields on their own is the ideal.

How much money does this take? Creativity and cost are always on a see-saw: those with lots of money have little need for creative solutions, while those with little money must seek ways to build cultural and social capital that cost very little. If the immigrant experience teaches us anything, it's that generations of financially impoverished people arrived on these shores with little to no money, but somehow managed to instill the values that gave their offspring social mobility.

The Internet offers everyone seeking social mobility great leverage--if they have the confidence to pursue the opportunities that can be turned up with modestly diligent research. There are many free courses online and the tremendous resources of what I call YouTube University.

One theory holds that excellence requires both a superiority complex--the feeling of being able to bring something special to the table--and an inferiority complex--the feeling of needing to prove one's abilities and value.

If there is some truth to this, those a few rungs down the social mobility ladder are ideally placed to excel--if they can climb high enough to access the opportunities that are still out there.

This essay was drawn from Musings Report 2015-21. The Musings Reports are emailed weekly exclusively to subscribers and major contributors (see sidebar for how to subscribe). The Musings Reports address a wider range of topics than the blog.

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