Why Doesn’t the Government Track Social Mobility?

Unlike poverty rates, the deficit, and other economic measures, the federal government has no standard way of tracking movement up the income ladder.

National Journal
Nancy Cook
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Nancy Cook
July 3, 2014, 8:11 a.m.

One of the few areas of agree­ment now between Wash­ing­ton’s war­ring law­makers is the broad idea that kids should have the op­por­tun­ity to rise up the in­come lad­der as they age. It’s the old Hor­a­tio Al­ger stor­ies writ large for the polit­ic­al stage.

Yet des­pite this con­sensus, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment does not of­fer any stand­ard way to meas­ure so-called so­cial mo­bil­ity. We can read up on of­fi­cial poverty stats, or meas­ure­ments of the fed­er­al de­fi­cit, but we do not track mo­bil­ity at the fed­er­al level in the same sys­tem­at­ic way.

That’s why Richard Reeves, a fel­low in eco­nom­ic stud­ies and the policy dir­ect­or for the Cen­ter on Chil­dren and Fam­il­ies at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, has offered up a mod­est pro­pos­al to cre­ate a fed­er­al “Of­fice of Op­por­tun­ity.” “Ad­opt­ing an of­fi­cial mo­bil­ity meas­ure is un­likely to re­quire vast new data col­lec­tion — though some in­vest­ments would need to be made,” he writes in his Brook­ings pro­pos­al. “It’s more of a ques­tion of de­cid­ing mo­bil­ity is worth meas­ur­ing and pro­mot­ing.”

So, the­or­et­ic­ally, how would the gov­ern­ment go about meas­ur­ing so­cial mo­bil­ity? Well, it could look at the pro­por­tion of chil­dren born in the bot­tom quin­tiles of the in­come lad­der who rise to the top two quin­tiles. (That’s a data point that Har­vard eco­nom­ists re­cently re­lied on for their ground­break­ing work on geo­graphy and in­tergen­er­a­tion­al mo­bil­ity). Oth­er sug­ges­tions: Meas­ur­ing the num­ber of 4-year-olds en­rolled in pre-school; high school gradu­ation rates of those with grade point av­er­ages above 2.5; the num­ber of people ages 25 to 49 who work; or the num­ber of births with­in mar­riages. All of these stat­ist­ics give eco­nom­ists and poli­cy­makers ways to map out the changes, or lack there­of, in move­ment up the in­come lad­der.

The goal would be to cre­ate what Reeves calls a “dash­board” of an­nu­al, agreed-upon in­dic­at­ors — and to pro­duce an an­nu­al re­port. This would give the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment real data that, in turn, could in­form policy de­cisions. “If you go straight to the policy without the data, it can be hard to find any agree­ment,” he says. The Of­fice of Op­por­tun­ity could also eval­u­ate oth­er pro­pos­als from non­profits or the private sec­tor to pro­mote so­cial mo­bil­ity. “Cor­por­ate hir­ing policies, for ex­ample, may have as great an im­pact on mo­bil­ity as any num­ber of fed­er­al K-12 ini­ti­at­ives,” he writes.

The United King­dom and New Zea­l­and’s Treas­ury De­part­ment already run something sim­il­ar. The U.K. gov­ern­ment, for in­stance, col­lects and pub­lishes 17 in­dic­at­ors in­ten­ded to gauge long-term mo­bil­ity. Both coun­tries’ ef­forts of­fer mod­els for the U.S.

For that mat­ter, so does the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment’s own non­par­tis­an Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice, which pub­lishes re­port after re­port about the state of gov­ern­ment spend­ing and de­vel­ops cost es­tim­ates on le­gis­la­tion. Like the CBO, the Of­fice of Op­por­tun­ity would be small and in­de­pend­ent so that both Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans took it ser­i­ously. Reeves es­tim­ates it would cost around $10 mil­lion a year to fund such an of­fice.

So far, Reeves’ pro­pos­al has not gen­er­ated any ser­i­ous in­terest with­in the halls of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment des­pite meet­ings with con­gres­sion­al law­makers from both parties. But he’s also met with city and state of­fi­cials around the coun­try, in­clud­ing in Col­or­ado, he says, about de­vel­op­ing loc­al meas­ures of mo­bil­ity. That’s an in­triguing idea for states and cit­ies, as they in­creas­ingly be­come the best labor­at­or­ies for policy de­cisions.

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