Social mobility as a silver bullet…

Rachael Maclean was one of the more low-key members of Boris Johnson’s cabinet up until her “get a better paying job” comments made headlines in May. In case those headlines were all you read, here is the context. Maclean, who at the time was a Minister at the Home Office with responsibility for Safeguarding, was interviewed as a part of a feature Sky News were running on the cost of living. Immediately after a conversation in the home of a working family in Wigan, host Kay Burley went to Maclean for her reaction. Here’s the web synopsis of her comments.

Ms Maclean said that every minister was looking at the issue as consumers face “short term pressures” such as high energy and food bills – and added that there was “more help coming”.

But she added: “Over the long term we need to have a plan to grow the economy and make sure that people are able to protect themselves better – whether that is by taking on more hours or moving to a better paid job and these are long term actions but that’s what we’re focused on as a government.”

Pressed over evidence that some people were working three jobs but still having to visit food banks, she added: “We have often heard in the past when people are facing problems with their budgets that one of the obstacles – and it may not be for everybody – is about being able to take on more hours or even move to a better-paid job.”

There was widespread opprobrium from opposition politicians and commentators such as LBC presenter James O’Brien who tweeted that the comments were an example “Crass, callous” and “tone-deaf Tory politicians”. The surprising element of Maclean’s comments is her choice to introduce the idea of self-advancement into the debate on the cost of living. The essence of this crisis appears to be its impact on working families. Wages and salaries are going straight back out onto rising energy bills and essential groceries. This impact is spread across a large swathe of the population, so the idea that better-paying jobs would ease a family’s plight at a stroke seemed to over-simplify and minimise the issue at hand. Furthermore, Maclean seems to assume that sufficient training is available and accessible to those already working long and hard to provide for their families’ needs.

However, Maclean’s reversion to individual economic advancement as a talking point is wholly in keeping with her party’s outlook on deprivation and social protection. The very construct of social mobility as an absolute social good has become the subject of public and political debate and a point of visible division between the UK’s two main parties.

Whereas Labour’s 2019 manifesto explicitly argued against using social mobility as a measure of fairness and proposed replacing the Social Mobility Commission with a Social Justice Commission, Conservatives retained much of the language used in the preceding election of 2017 when putting forward the idea of Britain as the world’s Great Meritocracy. In arguing that equality of opportunity and reward for hard work could heal social divisions, they continued a tradition of framing poverty and deprivation at the level of the individual. Introducing the 2014 Child Poverty Strategy, then Work and Pensions Secretary Ian Duncan-Smith characterised the sources of poverty as “family breakdown, educational failure, addiction, debt or worklessness”. The strategy made no reference to the previous year’s study by Mike Savage and colleagues who used the results of the BBC Class Survey to demonstrate the enduring importance of inherited wealth (as distinct from earned income) in shaping Britain’s class structure. In effect, this demonstrated that policies which protect the transfer of wealth and privilege serve to perpetuate the structural divides between socioeconomic groups in the UK.

On a human level, it is understandable for people to harbour the ambitions of ‘getting on in life’, or for their children to be better-educated and have more opportunities than they had. We are drawn to stories of ‘rags to riches’. Whether it be Raheem Sterling, the boy from Brent, whose football skills brought him from the long shadow of Wembley as a child to propel his country to a European Championship final inside the stadium, or Kate Middleton’s maternal ancestry in the coal mines of northern England, the idea of social mobility seems to chime with a cultural affinity for the underdog overcoming the odds.

The Labour argument is that heart-warming stories do not necessarily make for robust policy. In the absence of significant economic growth, or in circumstances where the distribution of wealth is serving to perpetuate class structure and inequality, social mobility will usually mean that while some people get to climb the ladder upwards, others will slide down a snake. All that happens when someone leaves a low-paying job is that it becomes a low-paying vacancy.

The outcome of these policy divisions could have ramifications for public health, given that we know from countless studies the severe and lasting effects that poverty and social deprivation have on people’s physical and mental well-being. For example, poor quality housing, which is damp, with few amenities or green space, all takes a toll on residents. The social mobility perspective suggests we should create opportunities for people to move ‘up and out’ of those conditions. However, the precise health impacts of social mobility are unclear and complex. While moving to a nicer house may have some benefits, those have to be traded against the costs of upheaval. Furthermore, if many properties are changing hands in the context of significantly slowed development and building of quality housing, as occurred in the years following the 2008 economic crash, then the net effect on wellbeing can only be negligible, as just as many people will move to inferior homes as will improve their situation. Meanwhile, the movement itself can come at a cost to community cohesion and a sense of place.

Along with a of team of researchers a team of researchers from Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Glasgow, I co-authored a study published last year in the journal Population, Space and Place, looking for evidence of knock-on health benefits of upward social mobility and weighing these against any health consequences to those moving in the other direction to lower value housing.

We examined levels of self-reported health problems among people who had changed address in a 10-year period. Using linked records of property value, we compared those who moved to higher-value properties to those who moved to lower-value properties or stayed at the same value point. We found that people who moved to homes with lower property values were disproportionately at risk of poor physical and mental health compared to those who moved to homes with higher values. Thanks to the large representative sample available to researchers through the Northern Ireland Longitudinal Study, we were able to compare nine different groups of movers based on the values of the properties they moved to and from.

The bigger the downward difference in value between properties occupied, the more those health risks increased. We looked for evidence of the opposite effect for people moving in the other direction, but found that it was comparatively small: it didn’t matter if someone’s new property was worth £20,000 more or £160,000 more than their old home, protective effects to health were similar, and small.

Author Zadie Smith’s critical description of social mobility encapsulates how complex the lived experience of change and upheaval can be. Speaking in a 2013 BBC interview about her novel NW (whose title refers to the postcodes of North-West London where its four protagonists were raised), Smith drew on her experience as a working class woman of colour who left home after being admitted to Cambridge University. She described the unforeseen impacts of this upward transition, including a sense of alienation from her own homeplace and childhood, as well as the feeling of isolation to someone unused to large houses.

Of course, no study is comprehensive. It wasn’t possible for us to look at the different reasons for house moves, or how often these caused significant disruption to social life or childcare. However, an advantage of the data we had was that it allowed us to adjust for circumstances which might create ‘noise’ in the data, such as the existence of prior health conditions which might lead to a subsequent loss of employment and address change, or the transition from living with parents to solo living for younger people.

Major life changes are highly complex and their effects can vary from person to person. Those ‘rags to riches’ stories are just that – stories, narratives we tell ourselves about the type of society we wish to be. Social mobility seems to belong within a genre of ideas which work well as individual aspirations but may not serve as good guiding principles for policy. At a minimum, it’s an error to emphasise social mobility alone as a means of combating poverty. The idea of Social Protection is that we collectively create a floor below which living standards are not allowed to fall for any citizen and continually try to raise the level of that floor. Framing social protection in individual terms, as Rachael Maclean did when referring to helping families “protect themselves” against the effects of inflation is an example of precisely such a category error. It’s reminiscent of the idea that building various forms of personal resilience is the solution to challenges which range from economic stress to climate change.

Already we can hear this emphasis come forth in the rhetoric surrounding the change of guard at the head of the Conservative Party. In consecutive lines of his resignation speech in the House of Commons, Sajid Javid referred to the party’s belief “in decency, personal responsibility, and social justice enabled by conventions and the rule of law” and to the “Conservative mission to extend freedom, prosperity and opportunity to all”.

Ironically, one of the less often discussed consequences of inequality is that the most unequal societies are those where social mobility is lowest, as evidenced in The Spirit Level, social epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s comprehensive overview of the outworkings of inequality. In other words, combating inequality on a structural level could be more efficient to achieve social mobility, fairness and equality of opportunity, and one with greater social dividends than enabling people to move ‘up and out’.


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