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School Is for Social Mobility

essay on social mobility

By John N. Friedman

Mr. Friedman is an economist at Brown whose work focuses on how to use big data to improve life outcomes.

America is often hailed as a land of opportunity, a place where all children, no matter their family background, have the chance to succeed. Data measuring how low-income children tend to fare in adulthood, however, suggest this may be more myth than reality.

Less than one in 13 children born into poverty in the United States will go on to hold a high-income job in adulthood; the odds are far longer for Black men born into poverty, at one in 40 .

Education is the solution to this lack of mobility. There are still many ways in which the current education system generates its own inequities, and many of these have been exacerbated by Covid-19 closures. But the pandemic also revealed a potential path forward by galvanizing support for education funding at levels rarely seen before. With the right level of investment, education can not only provide more pathways out of poverty for individuals, but also restore the equality of opportunity that is supposed to lie at America’s core.

It is certainly not a new idea that education can change a child’s life trajectory. Almost everyone has some formative school memory — a teacher with whom everything made sense, an art project that opened new doors or a sports championship that bonded teammates for life.

But what is new is the torrent of research studies using “big data” to show the power of education for shaping children’s trajectories, especially over the long term. In one study, for example, my co-authors and I found that students who were randomly assigned to higher-quality classrooms earned substantially more 20 years later, about $320,000 over their lifetimes. And it’s not only the early grades that matter; research suggests the quality of education in later grades may be even more important for long-term outcomes, as children’s brains don’t lock in key neural pathways for advanced reasoning skills until well into their teenage years.

Education changes lives in ways that go far beyond economic gains. The data show clearly that children who get better schooling are healthier and happier adults, more civically engaged and less likely to commit crimes . Schools not only teach students academic skills but also noncognitive skills, like grit and teamwork, which are increasingly important for generating social mobility. Even the friendships that students form at school can be life-altering forces for social mobility, because children who grow up in more socially connected communities are much more likely to rise up out of poverty.

Conversely, limited social mobility hurts not just these children but all of society. We are leaving a vast amount of untapped talent on the table by investing unequally in our children, and it’s at all of our expense.

Researchers have also used big data to uncover many specific education reforms that could lead to huge improvements. For instance, the evidence is clear that teachers are critical; my co-authors and I found that, when better teachers arrive at a school, the students in their classrooms earn around $50,000 more over each of their lifetimes. This adds up to $1.25 million for a class of 25 in just a single year of teaching.

Smaller classes and increased tutoring also lead to long-term gains for students. Charter schools have revealed a range of effective approaches as well, often to the benefit of some of society’s most disadvantaged children . Children also benefit from longer school days , greater access to special education and less aggressive cutoffs for holding students back a grade.

Given this rich body of evidence, why doesn’t our K-12 system already propel more low-income students to success? A big reason continues to be inadequate funding. Because schools raise a large share of revenue through local property taxes, high-income students often attend well-resourced schools while low-income students attend schools with more limited resources. Decades of reforms have made some progress reducing these funding gaps within certain states, but huge gaps remain both between states and between schools within districts. Even with additional resources, schools often do not invest in proven reforms like the ones I mentioned above, choosing other, less data-driven proposals or even using additional resources to reduce local property taxes rather than increase spending on education.

If our education system does not currently support equality of opportunity, would investing more simply throw good money after bad? No. Many studies show the gains in social mobility when states like Michigan and New Mexico have reduced funding disparities to invest more in disadvantaged students. These reforms have gone in the right direction, but we need much more: With many students facing larger barriers to success as a result of factors outside the educational system, even equality of average funding levels may not be sufficient to generate equality of opportunity.

The Covid pandemic highlighted and magnified the deep inequities in our education system. Many high-income students were able to limit their learning losses , but on average, low-income students stayed remote longer and lost more ground for each week of remote school. By one estimate, high-poverty schools in districts that were mostly remote experienced 50 percent more achievement loss than low-poverty ones during the 2020-21 school year alone.

But Covid also triggered a momentous policy response. K-12 schools received nearly $200 billion in funding across three federal stimulus bills, much of which was aimed at combating learning loss. This money also began to address structural barriers by supporting increased internet and device access in low-income communities, both urban and rural, and in other ways.

Educators also displayed extraordinary creativity in finding new methods to teach students and help them catch back up. For instance, teachers and school leaders are using technology to support kids by prioritizing learning acceleration over remediation. New research shows students cover twice as much ground if they keep moving forward, completing targeted review as needed to master new material, rather than simply repeating lessons they missed because of Covid.

The sad fact is that the learning gaps opened up by Covid are a small fraction of those that already existed before the pandemic, when, in some school districts, low-income students were two, three and even four grade levels behind . If the pandemic motivated $200 billion in spending, then we should be investing trillions over the next decade to address the broader inequality in our system. While many of these gaps are caused by disparities that exist outside the school system, education remains our best shot at narrowing them.

If politics is the art of the possible, perhaps the biggest silver lining of these past two years has been to redefine what is possible. It will take this kind of extensive effort — investing year after year with the same level of urgency that we used to confront the pandemic — to transform our schools into the engines of social mobility that they can be.

John N. Friedman ( @john_n_friedman ) is the chairman of the economics department at Brown University. He is also a founding co-director of Opportunity Insights .

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips . And here’s our email: [email protected] .

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook , Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram .

Module 7: Stratification and Inequality

Social mobility, learning outcomes.

  • Describe how inequality of opportunity is measured through life chances and standard of living
  • Describe types of social mobility

Life Chances

Max Weber’s conceptualization of social class examines class, status, and power. We know by now that all societies have a mechanism to rank, or stratify, its members and that this stratification is unequal in terms of rewards and benefits. Weber used the term  life chances  ( Lebenschancen in German) to describe the opportunities to increase one’s position in the social class structure. Categories that affect life chances include the social class one is born into, geographic location, family ancestry, race, ethnicity, age, and gender.

Consider the life chances of a child born in Syria today. Syria is one of the most violent countries in the world, and millions of Syrians have been displaced or are refugees seeking asylum in other countries. What kinds of life chances are afforded to Syrian children? 

Consider the life chances of a child born into the Kennedy family in Massachusetts, which has been called “America’s top dynasty”  [1] versus the life chances of a child born to a poor family in Mississippi. The Kennedy child is born into class, status, and power, having a U.S. President, three U.S. Senators, four U.S. Representatives, and one U.S. Cabinet member within his or her extended family. This boy or girl will attend elite private boarding schools, will travel the world, and will be exposed to possibilities largely unknown to his or her counterpart in Mississippi. Now imagine that the child born in Mississippi is African-American and has ancestors who were sharecroppers that lived under Jim Crow Laws, and whose more recent forebearers struggled through the Civil Rights Movement. This child will likely attend underfunded public schools and watch his or her parents struggle economically to find sustainable work and obtain health care. More than likely, he or she will experience racism from a very young age. 

People are often inspired and amazed at people’s ability to overcome extremely difficult upbringings. Mariano Rivera, acknowledged to be the best relief pitcher in history, made a baseball glove out of cardboard and tape because his family could not afford a real one. Alice Coachman grew up with few resources and was denied access to training facilities because of her race; she ran barefoot and built her own high jump equipment before becoming the first Black athlete (and one of the first American track and field athletes) to win an Olympic Gold. Pelé, perhaps the most transformative figure in soccer, learned the game while using a rag-stuffed sock for a ball. These are some of the stories told in documentaries or biographies meant to inspire and share the challenges of unequal upbringings. Relative to the overall population, the number of people who rise from poverty to become very successful is small, and the number that become wealthy is even smaller. Systemic barriers like unequal education, discrimination, and lack of opportunity can slow or diminish one’s ability to move up. Still, people who earn a college degree, get a job promotion, or marry someone with a good income may move up socially.

Social mobility  refers to the ability of individuals to change positions within a social stratification system. When people improve or diminish their economic status in a way that affects social class, they experience social mobility. Individuals can experience upward or downward social mobility for a variety of reasons.  Upward mobility  refers to an increase—or upward shift—when they move from a lower to a higher socioeconomical class. In contrast, individuals experience downward mobility  when they move from higher socioeconomic class to a lower one. Some people move downward because of business setbacks, unemployment, or illness. Dropping out of school, losing a job, or getting a divorce may result in a loss of income or status and, therefore, downward social mobility.

It is not uncommon for different generations of a family to belong to varying social classes. This is known as  intergenerational mobility . For example, an upper-class executive may have parents who belonged to the middle class. In turn, those parents may have been raised in the lower class. Patterns of intergenerational mobility can reflect long-term societal changes.

On the other hand,  intragenerational mobility  refers to changes in a person’s social mobility over the course of their lifetime. For example, the wealth and prestige experienced by one person may be quite different from that of their siblings.

Structural mobility  happens when societal changes enable a whole group of people to move up or down the social class ladder. Structural mobility is attributable to changes in society as a whole. In the first half of the twentieth century, industrialization expanded the U.S. economy, raising the standard of living and leading to upward structural mobility for almost everyone. In the decade and a half of the twenty-first century, recessions and the outsourcing of jobs overseas have contributed to the withdrawal of Americans from the workforce (BLS 2021) [2] . Many people experienced economic setbacks, creating a wave of downward structural mobility.

When analyzing the trends and movements in social mobility, sociologists consider all modes of mobility. Scholars recognize that mobility is not as common or easy to achieve as many people think.

The Stratification of Socioeconomic Classes

In the last century, the United States has seen a steady rise in its  standard of living , the level of wealth available to acquire the material necessities and comforts to maintain a specific lifestyle. The country’s standard of living is based on factors such as income, employment, class, literacy rates, mortality rates, poverty rates, and housing affordability. A country with a high standard of living will often reflect a high quality of life, which in the United States means residents can afford a home, own a car, and take vacations. Ultimately, standard of living is shaped by the wealth and distribution of wealth in a country and the expectations its citizens have for their lifestyle.

Wealth is not evenly distributed in most countries. In the United States, a small portion of the population has the means to the highest standard of living. The wealthiest one percent of the population holds one-third of our nation’s wealth while the bottom 50 percent of Americans hold only 2 percent. Those in-between, the top 50 to 90 percent hold almost two-thirds of the nation’s wealth (The Federal Reserve, 2021) [3] .

Many people think of the United States as a “middle-class society.” They think a few people are rich, a few are poor, and most are fairly well off, existing in the middle of the social strata. Rising from lower classes into the middle-class is to achieve the American Dream. For this reason, scholars are particularly worried by the shrinking of the middle class. Although the middle class is still significantly larger than the lower and upper classes, it shrank from 69 percen in 1971 to 51 percent in 2020. argue the most significant threat to the U.S.’s relatively high standard of living is the decline of the middle class. The wealth of the middle class has also been declining in recent decades. Its share of the wealth fell from 32 percent in 1983 to 16 percent in 2016 (Horowitz, Igielnik, & Kochhar 2020) [4] .

People with wealth often receive the most and best schooling, access better health care, and consume the most goods and services. In addition, wealthy people also wield decision-making power over their daily life because money gives them access to better resources. By contrasts, many lower-income individuals receive less education and inadequate health care and have less influence over the circumstances of their everyday lives.

Additionally, tens of millions of women and men struggle to pay rent, buy food, find work, and afford basic medical care. Women who are single heads of household tend to have a lower income and lower standard of living than their married or single male counterparts. This is a worldwide phenomenon known as the feminization of poverty —which acknowledges that women disproportionately make up the majority of individuals in poverty across the globe and have a lower standard of living. In the United States, women make up approximately 56 percent of Americans living in poverty. One reason for this difference is the struggle of single mothers to provide for their children. One in four unmarried mother lives in poverty (Bleiweis, 2020) [5] . The wage gap, discussed extensively in the Work and the Economy chapter, also contributes to the gender-disparity in poverty.

In the United States, poverty is most often referred to as a relative rather than extreme measurement. Extrem e poverty  is an economic condition in which a family or individual cannot afford basic necessities, such as food and shelter, so that day-to-day survival is in jeopardy.  Relative poverty  is an economic condition in which a family or individuals have 50% income less than the average median income. This income is sometimes called the poverty level or the poverty line. In 2021, for example, the poverty for a single individual was set at $12,880 for one individual, $17,420 for a couple, and $26,500 for a family of four (ASPE 2021) [6] .

As a wealthy developed country, the United States invests in resources to provide the basic necessities to those in need through a series of federal and state social welfare programs. These programs provide food, medical, and cash assistance. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) provides cash assistance. The goal of TANF is to help families with children achieve economic self-sufficiency. Adults who receive assistance must fall under a specific income level, usually half the poverty level, set by the state. TANF funding goes to childcare, support for parents who are working or training a required number of hours a week, and other services. TANF is time-limited. Most states only provide assistance for a maximum of 5 years (CBPP) [7] .

One of the best-known programs is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), administered by the United States Department of Agriculture and formerly known as the Food Stamp Program. This program began in the Great Depression, when unmarketable or surplus food was distributed to the hungry. It was not formalized until 1961, when President John F. Kennedy initiated a food stamp pilot program. His successor Lyndon B. Johnson was instrumental in the passage of the Food Stamp Act in 1964. In 1965, more than 500,000 individuals received food assistance. During the height of the pandemic in 2020, participation reached 43 million people.

Watch this video to learn more about social mobility. The video highlights research that began in 1982 by Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle, and Linda Olson. They followed 800 first grade students in Baltimore for twenty five years and examined the impact their socioeconomic status had throughout their lives.

Think It Over

  • Track the social stratification of your family tree. Did the social standing of your parents differ from the social standing of your grandparents and great-grandparents? Does your class differ from your social standing, and, if so, how? What aspects of your societal situation establish you in a social class?
  • How does the longitudinal research conducted by Alexander and Entwisle help us understand the “long shadow of poverty,” particularly among racial minorities?


Improve this page Learn More

  • Hess, S. 2019. "America's Top Dynasty?" http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/11/AR2009091101831.html?noredirect=on ↵
  • Civilian labor force participation rate, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/charts/employment-situation/civilian-labor-force-participation-rate.htm accessed March 15, 2021. ↵
  • Distribution of Household Wealth in the U.S. since 1989. (n.d.) The Federal Reserve. Retrieved March 21, 2021 from https://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/z1/dataviz/dfa/distribute/chart/#quarter:124;series:Net%20worth;demographic:networth;population:7;units:shares;range:2005.4,2020.4 . ↵
  • Horowitz, J. M.; Igielnik, R.; and Kochhar, R. (2020, January 9). Trends in income and wealth inequality. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/01/09/trends-in-income-and-wealth-inequality/ ↵
  • Bleiweis, R; Boesch, D.; & Gaines, A. C. (August 3, 2020). The Basic Facts About Women in Poverty. Center for American Progress. Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/reports/2020/08/03/488536/basic-facts-women-poverty/ ↵
  • HHS Poverty Guidelines for 2021. (January 13, 2021). Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE). https://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty-guidelines . ↵
  • Modification, adaptation, and original content. Authored by : Sarah Hoiland and Lumen Learning. Provided by : Lumen Learning. License : CC BY: Attribution
  • Social Stratification and Mobility in the United States. Authored by : OpenStax CNX. Located at : http://cnx.org/contents/02040312-72c8-441e-a685-20e9333f3e1d/Introduction_to_Sociology_2e . License : CC BY: Attribution . License Terms : Download for free at http://cnx.org/contents/[email protected]
  • Social Stratification and Mobility in the United States. Provided by : OpenStax. Located at : https://openstax.org/books/introduction-sociology-3e/pages/9-2-social-stratification-and-mobility-in-the-united-states . Project : Sociology 3e. License : CC BY: Attribution . License Terms : Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/introduction-sociology-3e/pages/9-2-social-stratification-and-mobility-in-the-united-states
  • Social Mobility: Crash Course Sociology #26. Provided by : CrashCourse. Located at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjuV-XdYHhA&index=27&list=PL8dPuuaLjXtMJ-AfB_7J1538YKWkZAnGA . License : Other . License Terms : Standard YouTube License
  • The Impacts of Social Class: Crash Course Sociology #25. Provided by : CrashCourse. Located at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=0a21mndoORE . License : Other . License Terms : Standard YouTube License

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Social Mobility and the Sociological Perspectives, Essay Example

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Social mobility is defined as the “the ability of individuals or groups to move within a social hierarchy with changes in income, education, occupation, etc” (dictionary.com) meaning how people or generations of people can change their social positions over time. Depending on the perspective through which different sociologists view social mobility, each will explain it in a different way. There are three major sociological perspectives; social conflict theory, structural functionalism and interactionism and each sees social mobility in a different light.

The social conflict perspective believes social mobility to be very rare. This theory started with Karl Marx and asserts that society is divided into “haves” and “have nots” which create social conflict and competition within society. Today it is recognized that the source of conflict is not only from economic difference but also gender, race and sexuality. The result is a highly stratified society in which some dominate and the others are oppressed (Mooney, Knox and Schacht 11-12). According to conflict theorists, social mobility is difficult because class society is always reproduced and even large societal reforms only benefit the wealthy.

Structural functionalism looks at the social structures of society to see how it functions as a whole. The common metaphor used is society as a body and social structures as the organs that keep it going and focuses on society’s effect on the individual (Mooney, Knox and Schacht 8-9) According to structural functionalists, all social structures including social hierarchy have their beneficial place in society; therefore the act of an individual to change their place in society is not necessarily encouraged. Instead they believe that societies are meritocracies which will allow for social mobility if the person takes advantage of opportunities. Any failure to do so is the result of personal inferiority.

Interactionism looks at society on a personal, individual level based on face-to-face interactions and poses that people act according to their interpretation of these interactions and social symbols (Mooney, Knox and Schacht 14-15). Interactionists believe that individuals are the ones able to change their social position once it has been recognized by society as a problem.

In conclusion, social mobility varies in its definition based on the sociological perspective considering it. Some perspectives place the responsibility on the individual and others on the society for changing the social positions of its members.

Mooney, Linda A., David Knox, and Caroline Schacht.  Understanding Social Problems . Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2009. Print

“Social Mobility.”  Dictionary.com . Dictionary.com. Web. 02 Apr. 2012. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/social mobility

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Home / Essay Samples / Sociology / Identity / Social Mobility

Social Mobility Essay Examples

Definition, reasons and proposals for the regulation of social mobility.

Social issues affect many people and show up in patterns and statistics; these are social trends. A social problem influences a considerable number of people in society, not just one person. The cause of social and economic inequalities is unemployment, low pay, homelessness, lack of...

Use of Mobility to Provide a Sense of Freedom in Nevada by Imogen Binnie and Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg

Running away from one’s problems often seems like the easiest action to take when conflicted. Whether it is refusing to accept the reality that is or not wanting to step outside of a comfort zone, running or in the following cases, being mobile, allows individuals...

The American Dream and the False Idea of Social Mobility in the Great Gatsby

The American Dream is defined as the ideal by which equality of opportunity is available to any American, allowing the highest aspirations and goals to be achieved as well as an upward social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work in a...

Equal Access to Education and Professional Jobs: Social Mobility

Social mobility is essential for a fairer society and the well-being of individuals. Equal access to education and professional jobs is necessary for improving movement between social classes. Social mobility in the United Kingdom has stalled since 1980. What consequence is that the United Kingdom...

Race and Gender as Barriers to Social Mobility

This essay will discuss the extent to which race and gender create barriers to social mobility in the United Kingdom compared to the other factors. Social mobility is about the opportunities of movement between social classes by individuals. Social mobility in the United Kingdom faces...

Social Mobility in the UK as Series Issue and is Necessary to Improve the Situation

Social mobility is essential for a fairer society and the individual's life comfort. Equal access to education and professional jobs is necessary for improving the movement of families within social strata in a society. In the United Kingdom, social mobility has stalled since 1980, which...

Poor Social Mobility of Young People in Hong Kong

In the past, Hong Kong was well-known as a city that was full of opportunities, people believed they can move up the social ladder by their own efforts. The spirit of Lion Rock has always been many Hong Kong people’s core value, but it is...

Social Mobility is Crucial in Terms of Creating a Fairer Society

In view of social mobility has started showing as a serious issue and deteriorating since the 1980s owing to this has faced different kinds of barriers. As previous reports, people, mostly young people, encounter them at each stage of education, from early years through to...

Problem of Absence Social Mobility in the United Kingdom

The analysis, of where an individual ends up in life, primarily depends on their background because there are no fair chances to get on. According to the Financial Times, undoubtedly, there is a wide gap between the social classes in the UK, especially when comparing...

Social Mobility: Race Prejudice and Absence Education Like Obstacles to a Better Life

According to N. Mustapha, ”Social mobility is that the movement, usually of people or groups, from one social position to another within the social stratification system in a very society.” While persons who were born in families with low income there’s little chance for them...

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