Social mobility is the ability of an individual or family to improve (or lower) their economic status. The two main types of social mobility are intergenerational (i.e., a person is better off than their parents or grandparents) or intragenerational (i.e., income changes within a person or group’s lifetime). For years I’ve argued that social mobility—specifically getting people out of poverty—is infinitely more important than income inequality. But it’s easy for supporters of social mobility to forget that’s it’s a means, not an end.
When people talk about the U.S.’s social mobility, they tend to talk about relative mobility—how much of the difference between one generation’s incomes is associated with the difference between the incomes of their parents’ generation. The best evidence suggests that this has not changed since 1970. But relative mobility rates indicate very little about standards of living, which is the way ordinary citizens assess their well-being. Progressives emphasize the vague psychological discomfort of relative deprivation, which may be felt when people compare how much their income changes between generations to how much others gain or lose. This view of economic mobility discounts the tangible material comfort of an absolute gain in one’s own standard of living, regardless of how the neighbors are doing.