Why Focus On Social Mobility?

Upward social or economic mobility, which is generally defined as a person becoming more successful and financially better off than the previous generation, is a crucial part of what the United States represents. For decades the U.S. has been the country known for its equality of opportunity, allowing those of all backgrounds and ethnicities to succeed through pure determination and hard work. However, the situation at the moment does not resemble these ideals.

The average income of the top 0.1% of Americans was 196 times higher than that of the bottom 90% in 2018, roughly the same ratio as in the 1920s when public sentiment and progressive political leaders ended up helping enact sweeping legislation to combat inequality. The very richest people already have a staggeringly high level of income, but they are also the group that has seen by far the largest growth since 1967. Although the top 5% increased their average income from about $175,000 in 1967 to $350,000 by 2016, the bottom 60%'s average income has essentially not changed at all. Note that it actually has not decreased either, but rather stayed in place. And wealth inequality (accounting for values of owned real estate, investments, savings accounts, and loans or mortgages) tells a similar story. In 2016, the top 1% owned 40% of the total wealth in the country, the top 5% owned 67%, and the top 10% owned 79%. For comparison, in 1983 these figures were 34%, 56%, and 68% respectively.  Clearly, there has been a staggering increase in income and wealth concentration at the top over recent decades, leaving the middle and lower classes behind. But it may not be immediately apparent why this is a problem.

It turns out that inequality in it of itself is problematic for those at the bottom of the income distribution. Essentially, negative health outcomes such as mental illness, obesity, and violence tend to be more common in states and countries where there are higher levels of inequality. People in these areas live different kinds of lives and make different decisions, which is more of a reflection of the circumstances facing them than any particular fault in their character. Additionally, when individuals are constantly comparing themselves to others and receiving negative feedback, they tend to have higher levels of stress hormones in their bodies. Not only that, but researchers have found that people with lower status jobs tend to see higher levels of inflammation in their bloodstream and higher heart rates than their higher-ranking peers after being exposed to a stressful situation. These physical reactions are the body's response to a situation where it feels the immediate needs of the body are more important than the future, and are exacerbated when an individual feels insecure about their position in society or believes they have nothing. Researchers believe that negative health outcomes combined with harmful responses to stress explain the following phenomenon. Individuals' subjective assessment of where they stand in comparison to the rest of their community or nation is actually a better predictor of health than income: among economically developed nations, lower inequality correlates more closely with longer life expectancy than higher income does. 

The reason social mobility is so important is that if people are constantly moving between income classes, disparities in income across generations do not persist and income inequality over time is decreased, or at least not increased. Lots of upward mobility could significantly improve the vastly unequal American economic situation and also improve the overall health of its residents. Thus, it is important for individuals, and ideally political leaders, to be informed of the issues associated with social mobility.

Works Cited

Payne, Keith. The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die. New York, Penguin Books, 2018.
"Income Inequality in the United States." Inequality.org, inequality.org/facts/income-inequality/. Accessed 22 Feb. 2020.


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