Acton Institute Powerblog

Prosperity matters more than social mobility or income inequality

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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.

As Neil Gilbert reminds us, prosperity, not upward mobility, is what truly matters:

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.

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Associated Links

  • Social inequality
  • Social classes
  • Economy
  • Structure
  • Economic inequality
  • Social mobility
  • Economic mobility
  • Intergenerationality
  • Mobility
  • Socio-economic mobility in the United States
  • Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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