Five generations: that’s how long it could take for descendants of a poor family today to reach the average income in their country.
That’s just one example of the damning state of affairs outlined in the OECD’s new report on social mobility. The “social elevator” — the capacity for children to outperform their parents — may be broken, or at least in need of mending.
Apolitical spoke to Gabriela Ramos, OECD Chief of Staff and Sherpa to the G20, about the scale of the crisis, and how governments around the world can begin to fix it. She recommended one policy above all others — a “win-win” which Ramos believes has the biggest potential to transform the life chances of poor children.
The study found that inequality in earnings has widened since the 1990s, and the gap has been persistent. Over a four-year period, about 60% of people in the bottom 20% of the income distribution were stuck there, while 70% of top earners stayed at the top.
“If you’re born into a family that’s lagging behind, then your chances in life are very low”
“Those two extremes are really very difficult to move,” said Ramos. “If you’re born into a family that’s lagging behind, then your chances in life are very low.”
This is compounded by gaps in education, she said, which create what the report calls “sticky floors”. For example, children whose parents did not complete secondary school have just a 15% chance of going to university, compared to 60% for children with at least one university-educated parent.
The biggest priority
“If you really want one intervention that is a win-win,” said Ramos, “I would really focus on the support systems of early childhood education and care.”
High-quality affordable childcare can be “instrumental” in reducing early gaps in speaking and other cognitive skills, the report explained. “The kind of progress and developments you find from zero to three is just incredible,” Ramos said.
Although the majority of OECD countries have good numbers of three to five year olds in public preschools, educational support for children under this age is very mixed. In the Czech Republic, for example, just 6% of children under three participate in early education, compared to 65% in Denmark.
Governments need to change the way childcare is approached, said Ramos. “Here in France they call it ‘la garde d’enfants’” she pointed out, meaning “it’s still seen as a place to keep kids safe, instead of an investment in the future learning of these kids”.
Early years support, which can also include home-visiting programs to help parents, has a far greater impact on children from poor backgrounds, said Ramos. Children from well-off families already have a caring environment and educational stimulation at home.
In spite of this, she said, services in neighbourhoods with low-income children tend to be far lower quality, underfunded, and with less experienced teachers. This means it’s essential that resources are cleverly targeted to where they’re most needed.
For example, the report highlights the national Head Start program in America, which serves over one million disadvantaged preschool children and their families each year.
Preparing for change
Building these cognitive skills from a young age may prove even more important in the digital economy. Around 14% of jobs are expected to disappear in OECD nations, according to their analysis, and a further 30% are going to change.
Education and training systems have been built to emphasise knowledge accumulation, but “the internet has all the knowledge” now, said Ramos. “What you need to do is to help people with critical thinking, teamwork, socio-emotional skills and these other things that are more difficult to teach and assess.”
“If we don’t break that link, we will live in very fragmented and fractured societies”
And for adult jobseekers, she said, countries need to combat the “tragedy” of the skills gap: when there’s a mismatch between people’s skills and what businesses need, often leading to unemployment and underemployment. In Germany, for example, the business sector works closely with the government and workers to define what the market needs.
Ultimately, governments are always under pressure of tight budgets, said Ramos, which means they have to target interventions to people that need it. That’s where they’ll find the most impact in improving social mobility, and therefore the greatest value for money.
The solutions are out there, but so are the warnings. “If we don’t break that link between advantages and provision of good quality education and jobs,” she said, “we will live in very fragmented and fractured societies.” — Jack Graham
(Picture credit: Marco Illuminati/OECD)