On the same day as it publishes a review of a “deeply silly and ruinously pricey” steak-and-lobster restaurant, that serves beef at $100/kg (minimum order 600g; “At that price they should lead the damn animal into the restaurant and install it under the table so it can pleasure me while I eat”), the Guardian also publishes a stinging critique of the UK government’s policy on poverty and equality, by the UK government’s own “Social Mobility Commissioner.” At the same time, the Washington Post publishes a simple graph that shows how college-educated poor kids do no better than rich high-school dropouts economically. None of these articles, of course, bother to question what this social mobility is, and what a long-term commitment to the concept of social mobility – rather than equality – does to the structure of our societies. The hint is in some of the statistics, published by the UK’s social mobility tsar (do they get the irony of this title?), which show how in the modern economy even people in their 30s are being “priced out of the UK.” How is it that in an ever-wealthier society, with increasing technological advancements and growing wealth, we can have got to the point where a generation of 30-somethings is unable to afford the basics that their parents took for granted? The answer is simple: when you set up social mobility as your vehicle for insuring equality, you don’t actually create a society of equal wealth, but of equality in failure, and because nobody likes to fail the people who already have all the advantages use them to ensure that their own kids don’t lose the social mobility race. By focusing on ensuring everyone equal access to the biggest slice of the pie, you slowly reduce the size of the smallest slice. This is a vicious circle: as life at the bottom gets harder, the people who already own the majority of resources and have the biggest share of advantages work even harder to ensure their own kids don’t fall. Which is why after 20 years of talking about “social mobility” the US is stuck with a situation where 16% of college-educated kids from the poorest 20% of society stay there, while only 16% of high school dropouts from the top 20% end up there. Sure, there is social mobility in this system, but there is also grinding poverty in an age of excess.
But what’s more important than the way the rich mobilize to protect their status for their children, is the immorality of what happens to those who end up at the bottom. Let’s look at that, and ask ourselves about the ethics of a system that guarantees some people have to fail.
What being at the bottom means
In amongst the debate about this issue, there is discussion of increasing the minimum wage in the UK to 8 pounds. Let’s think about what that means. Suppose you are 20 and earning the minimum wage. If you work 40 hours a week, you’ll get 320 pounds, or 1280 pounds a month. Supposing that you don’t pay any tax (which will not be the case, but let’s see what happens there anyway), how will your expenses pan out? Living in a room in a share house in any UK city will cost 500-600 pounds a month, so even if you can somehow live on just 10 pounds a day (unlikely; utilities and travel will probably consume most of this), that leaves you realistically with 300 pounds of savings a month. That is, 3600 pounds a year. After five years you will have the money for a deposit on a 150,000 pound flat. Which does not exist within 20 miles of your workplace. So if you live in a share house until you are 25, don’t go on a single overseas holiday, don’t have any other expenses (such as, for example, a computer or a car or even a new tv) and live on 10 pounds a day for 5 years, you can afford the smallest, shittiest place on the British real estate market, though it will be too far from your work to buy it. More realistically, you’ll have to save for 10 years under those conditions.
This may seem like carping – oh poor diddums had to give some things up just to get onto the property market – but it means something. Our parents’ generation took it for granted that if you saved at a reasonable rate you could expect to marry, buy a small place, and start a family by the age of 25 or 28. This kid in our example can only get to such a state by eschewing all forms of ordinary life, and not paying taxes. The more realistic situation is that this kid will be forced to work 6 day weeks for 10 years, living on next to nothing, avoiding almost any frivolity, in order to have enough money for a deposit – only, probably, to be turned down for a mortgage by every bank.
If a kid like this wants to “get ahead” in the modern world, their only hope is a second job and a NINJA loan. Is it any wonder that the housing market was prone to fraud and speculation, when standard financial options are not available to a growing class of people looking at their life sliding out of view … and being told at the same time that it’s all their own fault.
Making sure they stay there…
Of course, the rich are uniquely empowered to protect their children from sliding into this class, and that is exactly what we see in the statistics. For example, the newspaper reports that
Only 7 per cent of all young people attend private schools, and less than 5 per cent attend grammar schools, but combined, they accounted for 44 per cent of last year’s UK-schooled fast stream applicants in the civil service, and 46 per cent of those who succeeded
and the Washington Post article notes that rich people have unique privileges to prevent their children falling through what it calls the glass floor, and identifies the phenomenon of “opportunity hoarding,” which the New York Times summarizes succinctly as a simple problem the architects of the “equal opportunity society” don’t want to talk about openly:
It is a stubborn mathematical fact that the top fifth of the income distribution can accommodate only 20 percent of the population. If we want more poor kids climbing the ladder of relative mobility, we need more rich kids sliding down the chutes.
But of course the rich have much more control of both the ladders and the chutes. The game is loaded, and the more dangerous life at the bottom gets, the more viciously the rich will need to fight it. Improving the quality of education for the poorest will simply mean the wealthy will invest more in their childrens’ education, or come up with mechanisms to protect their children from poor competitors – utilizing existing networks of friends and fellows, and developing new barriers such as unpaid internships or higher qualification requirements, or simply pricing the top schools away from a larger share of the middle class. There is no way this can be prevented in a liberal market society, and the more we push this idea of social mobility as the key solution to inequality – the more we try to push people up into the top 20% and encourage the weak and stupid in that tier to fall down to the bottom – the more we will encourage the people at the top to protect their status and resources, the harder life at the bottom will get, and the more vicious the competition will become. Is this how we want our late capitalist society to greet its new graduates?
The morality of the fall
Is it really fair to anyone to have this situation at the bottom, though? Does it really matter whether the people who are stifling in the bottom 20% with no life choices and no future are really just the idiots and lazy bastards from every stratum of society? If our system of social mobility worked as the social mobility “tsar” wants it to, and the people at the bottom were simply those who couldn’t be bothered studying or trying to better themselves, or the dumbest and least talented of every class, is that really how things should be? It may satisfy the schadenfreude of a small number of class warriors, but is it really fair that just because Little Johnny Trustfund was dumb and lazy at school, he should be forced to spend the rest of his life locked out of financial security, home ownership and even the chance to raise a family with dignity and security? Is that a fair price to extract from him for being a bit dumb and lazy when he was 16?
It is tempting here to ask rhetorical questions that postulate some worthiness to poor fallen Johnny Trustfund. Perhaps he wanted to play football, so he didn’t concentrate on his grades but then failed to make the sporting cut. Perhaps he was in a car crash that wasn’t his own fault – it mustn’t be anything we could ascribe to a higher moral tale! – and had to drop out of school. Perhaps he was sexually abused, we all know the effect that has on school achievement. Surely such a person doesn’t deserve to spend his life in poverty just because of problems beyond his control? To this temptation I respond with a resounding “fuck it!” Why should the fruits of society only be available for nice people who never did anything wrong? I don’t want to live in a society where the punishment for being a dumb, lazy arsehole is a lifetime in penury. If that’s what “social mobility” means – that some smart, honourable poor kid gets to live a life of models and blow at the expense of some dumb, lazy rich arsehole being forced to live a life of unstable accommodation, poor healthcare and insecurity and worries – then I say our society has been designed by arseholes, and is broken. Just because Johnny Trustfund was a dickhead who squandered his daddy’s money and the opportunities he was given doesn’t mean he should be thrown on some kind of zero-hours-contract scrapheap for the rest of his life, or even 10 years of it. We can do better than that.
Wrapped up in the middle of our “social mobility” society is a moral tale that is offensive and cruel. We can build a better society than one in which, even though someone is always going to have to do the shit jobs, the people who are forced to do those shit jobs are also forced to live insecure, unstable and unfair lives. Why not look for something better?
The changing nature of a basic living
One unfortunate consequence of the changing nature of modern life is that our expectations of a basic living change with it. While 100 years ago the idea of a basic living might have been “shelter and food,” now it is different. In the modern world we expect that a basic living means not just shelter and food, but the ability to access to certain communications devices, to read and write and do maths (at an increasingly sophisticated level), to be able to deploy these skills for leisure (i.e. able to afford books at some basic level), the right to at least basic healthcare, and the rights to a sexual existence and ultimately a stable family that loves you. For women it includes the right to work and have a family without killing yourself. It is not possible to sustain these rights in the UK on a basic wage, or really at any part of the bottom 20% of the income distribution, but the fact that this is impossible in this income bracket doesn’t mean it should be impossible. With our current level of wealth we could easily redesign our social economy so that people in the bottom 20% of the income bracket could afford to live differently, and the fact that they can’t is a political choice not an economic fact. The “social mobility economy” is a political choice intended not just to ensure that the people in the bottom 20% of the income distribution earn much, much less than the top 20%; it is also designed to punish them for being there. The moral reasons for this punishment may vary depending on who you ask, but the presence of morality in the structure of our society is inescapable. And the consequences of this morality play in the modern world are real, and growing.
Unemployment as a generational strike
The Guardian reports that the “Saturday job” has become a thing of the past for young people, with the proportion of people who are studying and working dropping by half over the past 20 years. The unemployment rate in the UK is near 6%, and yet somehow all these young people are not able to do a Saturday job. Given the growth of cafe culture and large retail and services businesses that depend on casual labour, it seems unlikely to me that young British are dropping out of casual labour because the jobs aren’t there. Those jobs are going to Europeans, especially Eastern Europeans, and they’re going there for two reasons: because eastern Europeans will work for less, in cash; and because UK citizens won’t work for the poor wages they’re being offered – or at all. This is often portrayed in the right wing press as a sign of the unworthiness of the poor, but another way to see it is as a generational strike. A whole generation of young, poor people have watched as their working conditions and salary become increasingly difficult and disconnected from the lives and rights of the rich, and they have decided not to bother. They can also see that while to a poor Briton 8 pounds is 8 pounds, to a poor eastern European it is worth much more, because in their home countries the price of living is not so high. Basically, the minimum wage in the UK is designed to pay for the cost of living of an eastern European country with a much lower cost of living, but for some reason the UK’s leaders think that the British poor should be thankful for the chance to work for a wage that will only cover their needs if they move 1000km east. Not only is this an insult – an implicit version of Freud’s statements about some people not being worth 2 pounds an hour – but it’s also blindingly obvious to anyone who cares that working hard in this economic environment is a chump’s game. You won’t get ahead, or even get even – you’ll be working ever harder hours just to keep your head above water, and every time the government ratchets up the opportunity economy your lifestyle will be ratcheted down. Why bother? You’ll be worse off on welfare, but at least you won’t be spending 40 hours of your week making someone else richer.
The solution to this problem for the ruling class is simple: bring in more European cheap labour, and pay it less. The government doesn’t bother cracking down on paying illegal immigrants from outside Europe, and is barely able to catch people paying cash salaries, so why worry about those laggards? This vicious cycle only has one ending – given how easy it is to convince British people that their problems are based on race, not class – and that ending is UKIP. The short term consequence of this generational strike is the rise of UKIP, and maybe the disconnection of the UK from Europe, but in the long term this won’t solve anything because UKIP is as wedded to the concept of social mobility as anyone else in British politics, so the problem will simply be temporarily averted by a reduction in foreign competition amongst the poorest jobs. Once the working poor realize that UKIP were happy to kick out the foreign workers but not to address the poverty that opened up the job opportunities for those people in the first place, they will turn on UKIP. Where will that end?
A better way: ending welfarism and social mobility
When I was young and first at university 20 years ago, “equal opportunity” did not mean that everyone in every stratum of society had the same opportunities to screw up and fall into grinding poverty. Rather it meant that certain institutions and opportunities in society should be opened up to those from whom these institutions had been traditionally protected. This meant ending boys’ clubs, giving access to universities and the public service (and hospitals and schools!) to black people, Aborigines, and women. It did not mean that taking advantage of this access should become the pre-requisite for a fulfilling life. Somehow this idea sprang up in the interim, perhaps as a post-reaganite reaction to the growing equality of gays, women and Aborigines. I don’t know how this happened, but the modern notion of social mobility as a “cure” for inequality seems to have a lot more to do with Victorian morals about the deserving and undeserving poor than it does with any genuine political measures to cure inequality. It doesn’t solve any of those problems, only serves to widen the pool of people who can suffer at the bottom. The proper cure for inequality is to make life better for those at the bottom.
We don’t do this through increasing the education of the poorest, or through expanding the range of welfare protections for those people, though both of these things may be good in their own right. We do this by making work rewarding, stable and empowering for people in this position. This means ensuring that someone who is working on minimum wage can afford to live their whole life on that wage. The government cannot make this happen by itself, because the wage is paid by businesses. Something needs to be done to either lower the cost of living for poor people, or to increase their wages, and the latter depends on businesses recognizing their social responsibility to their poorest staff. Sure, housing costs and health costs can be partially controlled through government planning, but ultimately we need people at the bottom of the income scale to be able to afford to save a bit of money, to pay for their wedding and to raise kids and ideally buy some kind of house on their minimum wage. They need to have a path to secure long-term employment, and confidence that they can be sick or go through trauma of some other kind without their lives falling apart. This used to be possible through a range of corporate welfarism: cradle-to-grave jobs, employee holiday camps, union-run holiday homes, cheap home loans supported by the company, and so on. As a result of these rights, it was once possible for a working class family in industrial America to have a holiday cabin and visit there once a year, and to be able to save for a kid to go to college. Now they have the chance to leave their mortgage underwater and flee to the exurbs, where they will work a hyper-insecure job just to keep their car running. In the 40 years between those extremes, our societies have become immeasurably richer, so how is it that a modern US family can no longer afford to own their own home, and a modern single British youth cannot even afford to live alone, let alone buy a place of any kind?
The answer of course is that they were robbed. The people at the bottom of the income pile – whether generationally there or forced down there to make way for someone ambitious – have been robbed by the richest corporations. Wealth has accrued in the hands of a smaller and smaller number of people, and somewhere in the middle of all of that we lost track of the need to put limits on how much rentiers can gouge from renters. Capital has gotten out of control, but our past shows it doesn’t have to be that way. Political choices were made to steal from the poor and give to those who didn’t need it. These political choices are cloaked in the moral language of those who deserve and those who don’t, “strivers” and “leaners,” the 47% and the people who think they made that. The language of “social mobility” and modern neo-liberal concepts of “equal opportunity” are built on this language of the deserving and the undeserving. We need to recognize that this morality is 100 years out of place, and start working to regain that social order in which working was rewarding regardless of how noble the job might have been.
This will mean forcing corporations to pay their workers properly, flattening income scales and redistributing wealth not through welfare but through corporate pay structures. It will mean reining in the powers and privileges of the corporate elite and forcing them to reconnect with their employees. In some countries and some places, it will mean changing a wide range of social organization so that the price of living goes down for the poorest. In Japan it is still possible for someone on minimum wage to live alone in the heart of any city, though it may not be easy. This should be possible in any country with a modern capitalist economy, but sadly it is not. These problems in the price of living need to change.
Our moral yardstick should not be that some bright, smarmy kid from the poorest family can, through incredibly hard work and good luck, escape from a life sentence of grinding poverty, social insecurity, and limited lifestyle choices. It should be to eliminate that grinding poverty and social insecurity, and ensure the basic lifestyles of the poorest in our society. This means that regardless of your particular political perspective, if you truly value the rights of all people you should reject the language of “social mobility” and instead accept the importance and continuing relevance of that old and tired ideal, equality.