Britain's debate on social mobility is stuck. It's time for a city perspective

Manchester is the heart of the Northern Powerhouse – but it retains areas of intense deprivation. Image: Getty.

Social mobility plays a curious and sometimes tortuous role in our national political psyche.  We love talking about it, even if we can’t, or won’t, do much about it.

Greater mobility is a goal lionised by all politicians – along with the NHS it’s perhaps the closest thing to a secular faith that you will find at Westminster.  Our media lap up story after story on it. And research on the issue has undergone a mini-boom in our top universities, dominating the work of some of our finest scholars over the last decade or so.

Yet for all this attention there is a disheartening rhythm to much of the policy debate. Every time a gloomy report is published, saloon-bar solutions to our social mobility challenge are trotted out and treated seriously contrary to all evidence (think “grammar schools”). The fact that the key data underpinning most of this work is very dated (relating to those born in 1970) rarely features. Complex and broad questions about the distribution of opportunity across society get shrunk into the issue of the precise number of talented but poor children who manage – or not – to get into Oxbridge. 

There is also a steady predictability to the findings produced by study after study showing that the UK is an international laggard: relative to their better-off peers, poor children have the odds stacked more steeply against them in the UK than in most other advanced nations. Indeed the language of social immobility has gathered currency, with more references to “class ceilings” and the “Great Gatsby curve” (illustrating that high-inequality societies become low-mobility ones) among the media and policy-makers.


Sometimes this breeds a weary sense of policy-fatalism. Seasoned observers highlight, with some justification, that because national levels of mobility appear to be shaped by deep forces – the occupational structure of the jobs market and technological change – they can only altered by major economic transformation or massive social upheaval. The implication is that we should find something slightly more tractable to worry about.

Despite all the analysis there is much that we don’t know that might help open up the policy debate in a more productive way. Ask for a view of how social mobility across the generations varies between say London, Glasgow and Manchester and you will be met with silence.

Sure, we know all sorts of things about school performance, wages, jobs, access to university, life-expectancy and how they vary across urban areas. But hard evidence of the extent to which economic opportunity gets transmitted from one generation to the next, in one city compared to another? It doesn’t exist.

Which is why it’s refreshing that a new body of research jolts us into opening our minds to exactly this question. It comes in the form of a path-breaking body of US research from Raj Chetty and colleagues at Harvard and Stanford that demonstrates the enormous variation in levels of intergenerational social mobility that exists across US cities. Rather than lament national failure it invites us to explore the causes of city-level differences.

The motherlode

The work is a “big data” research project that tracks the economic trajectories of a staggering 40m children – in social research terms, this is akin to discovering the Ark.  It allows an entirely new map of uneven opportunity in contemporary America to be drawn and studied.

It’s widely known that, contra the national myth of the American Dream, the US has shockingly low levels of social mobility. But hitherto no one would have realised that the poor child in, say, Seattle, Salt Lake City or San Francisco has similar rates of upward mobility to a poor child in a high-mobility poster-boy country like Denmark.

Nor do the differences fit into easy caricatures. Why does a working-class child from Seattle have a similar chance of growing up to lead a middle-class life as a middle-class kid in Atlanta? (Both are booming cities.) Why does Pittsburgh so outperform nearby Cleveland? The variations are huge:  poor children have almost three times more chance of making it into high income households as adults in some cities compared to others.

Chetty believes his research can account for the great majority of this variation. Some of the answers don’t translate to the UK: race is a major factor in the US whereas in the UK the story is more nuanced (for instance, poor white children do least well; whereas those from BEM backgrounds are disadvantaged in terms of how their qualifications are translated into wages).

But some of the most powerful findings are suggestive for us. Social segregation of the poor due to patterns of housing has a strongly negative effect on mobility, as does long commute times. High levels of overall income inequality in an urban area are a big drag on mobility. But, interestingly, the position of the top 1 per cent makes little difference: that points to the conclusion that it may be the relative position of the middle class that is pivotal in permitting more upward progression, rather than what is happening to the run-away elite at the very top.

Measures of school performance matter greatly and the evidence suggests that the pivotal years in determining prospects for mobility occur when children are relatively young. Levels of social capital – local civic engagement as well as religious participation – also stand out as being important, as does family structure.

Perhaps some of our cities are quietly generating Scandinavian levels of mobility without us knowing

What can we say about social mobility and cities in the UK? Excellent research has been undertaken (as I’ve highlighted here before) on how the class attainment gap in London’s schools has been dramatically reduced over a generation (though we don’t know the extent to which these big strides will translate into future earnings). And the Sutton Trust have produced an innovative and revealing map showing the variation in performance of disadvantaged children in every (English) parliamentary constituency.

We also know that, if we look at earnings mobility, where you live makes a big difference. Those in London have a far greater chance of advancing up the pay ladder compared to people in other regions– even after we take account of skill levels, occupational mix and other factors – and this effect became much stronger in the 2000s compared to the 1990s. Against this, it would be surprising if London’s staggering levels of inequality in income and wealth compared to other parts of the UK, together with its dysfunctional housing market, didn’t act as a heavy anchor on mobility across the generations.

Studies of social mobility repeatedly suggest that geography matters. In the UK, as with other countries, there are powerful “neighbourhood effects” at work that shape the odds facing disadvantaged kids over and above all their family specific  factors like parental class, income and education.

Earlier this month, new work by the LSE showed that, even after fully taking account of family circumstances and school intake, it was still the case that coming from a neighbourhood characterised by high levels of child poverty was closely linked to a strongly negative impact on educational outcomes.  How a given level of poverty is distributed across an urban area appears to matter greatly to child opportunity.

The limits

These partial insights, however, only take us so far. At one level our knowledge gap about cities and much else simply reflects the fact that it’s not been possible to link up major data sets (including from HMRC) in the UK in the way that other countries have done: a sure case of the need for greater data-activism.

But, at a deeper level, it also mirrors our political culture. Take part in a debate on social mobility and you will – not surprisingly – find yourself discussing familiar national themes: private schools and the demise of grammars, the rise of financial services and decline of manufacturing, mass expansion of higher education, and the role of the welfare state. But a granular discussion about alternative strategies for city-development? Unlikely.


Yet the context for social mobility may well be shaped – more than we realise – below the level of the nation state. Perhaps some of our cities are quietly generating Scandinavian levels of mobility without us knowing; or maybe the smaller, more centralised nature of the UK means they’re all much the same.

It would, however, be highly surprising if there weren’t unlearnt lessons. Decisions about housing supply and mix, land use, transport infrastructure and commute times, migrant settlement and integration, models of school improvement, the transition from education to employment, and the design of shared civic spaces and services may well count for more than we think. Powers over these issues, together with the revenue base needed to underpin them, should form at least part of our national conversation about equity and opportunity (alongside regional economic growth).

It is a feature of our times that, despite strong headwinds, our leading cities believe they have more agency to shape their economic plight than has been the case for some time. As more powerful leaders emerge across our city-regions over the next few years they could also help breathe some new life into our national debate on social mobility. It would be useful if they had some research to guide them.

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation.

This piece was written for an event on “Social Mobility and the future city” at the 2015 Festival of Ideas  

 
 
 
 

Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.


A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.