Social mobility

It's still not fair: For many,opportunity remains frustratingly elusive

Published:January 22, 2009 11:02 pm

On January 13th Gordon Brown’s government announced its latest attempt to improve the chances of the poor and undereducated. The smorgasbord includes bonuses of £10,000 ($14,575) to persuade talented teachers to stay in unpleasant schools,a little bit of cash (£57m) to provide free child care for particularly deprived two-year-olds,a tripling (to 45,000) of the number of state-funded loans for retraining and promises to help bright but poor children gain entry to university. All perfectly good measures-and perfectly indicative of the government’s frustration.

Labour came to power in 1997 pledging to make Britain a fairer society. For all the billions of pounds and litres of sweat expended,progress-good at first-has been patchy overall. An OECD study last year concluded that Britons enjoyed neither equal opportunities nor equal outcomes. Income is shared out less evenly than in most rich countries (among OECD members,only Italy and America are more unequal). Opportunities for the poor to better themselves relatively are hard to come by: a father’s income determines his son’s to a greater extent in Britain than in any other OECD country. True,the study found that inequality and poverty were falling in Britain,but its data ran only until 2005. More recent information from Britain’s Office for National Statistics suggests that the trend has now gone into reverse.

Mr Brown’s concern for the disadvantaged is genuine,but there are baser political considerations too. Announcements about social mobility were combined with other pledges to introduce thousands of paid internships and guarantee loans to small businesses,in a bid to reassure voters that the government is doing everything it can to keep ordinary Britons in work through the downturn.

His party was elected almost 12 years ago in part because it had toned down the sort of socialist rhetoric that tends to frighten Middle England. But Mr Brown hails from a more traditional wing of the party than Tony Blair,his studiedly classless predecessor-and class,it seems,is now back on its agenda. Potentially the most significant announcement this week is that ministers are considering explicitly forbidding government departments from discriminating on grounds of social class. And Alan Milburn,a former health secretary who is leading a government commission on how to get more poor youngsters into professions such as medicine and law,frets that their access is being blocked by the sharp-elbowed middle-classes,who give their kids a leg-up by arranging valuable work experience and internships that few poorer parents can line up or finance.

The Tories look vulnerable on class: David Cameron is their first posh leader for decades,educated at Eton and then Oxford,and surrounded by political chums from the social elite. His background seemed not to matter much while the economy was growing and voters were getting richer. But there is nothing like a recession for sharpening an electorate’s sense of envy.

© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2008

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