April Fool, surely, I thought. Either because it cannot be true or because he surely was risking too much politically to say it. It turns out that it was not an April Fool's statement. In fact the Minister has made the same claim several times over the past 5 years.
So, what do the studies say? I went to two reliable sources: the Sutton Trust and the Business, Innovation and Skills Department of the UK Government (BIS). I found two studies--one for the Trust from 2007 and a 2011 one for BIS--in which an old flat mate of mine rom Coventry, Prof. Steve Machin of UCL, is a key author (he is also the Research Director of the Centre of Economic Performance at the LSE, and an editor of the Economic Journal).
The studies look at the strength of the relationship between parental background and income and the outcomes of their children in these domains. How easily can bright children from disadvantaged backgrounds move up the income and class distributions and how far back to less bright children fall even when from advantaged backgrounds?
The studies seem to conclude:
1. The big decline in social mobility in the UK was between children born in 1958 and children born in 1970. The outcomes for the kids born in 1958 were less likely to be determined by parental characteristics than for kids born in 1970.
2. From kids born after 1970, social mobility, while existing, seems to have been largely static.
3. Using income based definitions of mobility (how tightly wedded are parental incomes to incomes earned by their children when adults?) it is much more difficult to increase mobility in economies where income inequality is high.
4. it may be more cost-efficient to increase mobility by focusing on those just above the very bottom of the income distribution rather than those at the very bottom.
5. Early investments inmobility have the potential to be more effective than those later in life, but should not preclude the latter.
6. investment in non-cognitive skills (e.g. from time management and teamwork to leadership skills, and from self-awareness to self-control) may be more effective than investing in cognitive skills, at least for adults
7. interventions that affect key decisions of children and students rather than their skills may be more effective at promoting mobility.
Nowhere in the analyses can I find women's labour force participation (the Willets argument is that the new education and employment opportunities which opened up in the 1960's were taken up by middle class women) listed as a factor in the decline of mobility in the 1960s, although to be fair, an article by David Goodhart in 2008 in Prospect does mention this thesis (but does not cite the evidence for it).
What does this have to do with international development? We are worried about income (and social) mobility in development: from chronic poverty to intergenerational transmission of lifechances via poor nutrition, these issues matter. If we want income growth to reduce poverty and social protection to promote wealth creation we will care about these issues and if governments want to stay in power without the use of force they will care about policies that widen social, educational and employment opportunities.
As with many public policy issues over the coming years, we will see a convergence of learning between rich, emerging and still poor countries. We need to be better able to learn across these research divides. Research funders who are not constrained by an ODA mandate--such as the ESRC and the Wellcome Trust in the UK--should promote research programmes that cut across these artificial income divides to uncover new learning opportunities for all--women and men.