Thoughts on how important social mobility is to America's Lifestyle

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright February 2013


As I was growing up in Cleveland in the 1960's, high social mobility in America was a given. "Anyone can be president, even you," our teachers told us as an indicator that we all had equal opportunities to succeed. This was part of the American way.

Recent essays I've been reading indicate that this is no longer so true. The wealth disparity has widened, which doesn't bother me much, but the opportunity to move from poor to rich seems to be shrinking. This bothers me a lot. It means that the prosperity tide is not rising as fast as it should, which means all us Americans are suffering.

With this revelation, the issue of social mobility moves up to "important" on my list of things to pay attention to. It is also looks like one that can be corrected if we pay more community attention to it.

It can be corrected, but the solution will be a dramatic change in the social boundary of who gets involved in child raising and education. The new boundary will include a lot more time being spent by both children and parents in neighborhood-level educating activities -- a neighborhood-oriented institution of some sort is going to become the new extended family for children and their raisers.


This essay was inspired by a 9 Feb 13 Economist article, Social mobility in America: Repairing the rungs on the ladder, and a related Economist Free Exchange article, Nomencracy. Both of these talk about measuring social mobility (a difficult task) and how it seems to have declined in America over the last two decades.

From the social mobility article:

"America is particularly exposed to the virtuous-meritocracy paradox because its poor are getting married in ever smaller numbers, leaving more children with single mothers short of time and money. One study suggests that the gap in test scores between the children of America’s richest 10% and its poorest has risen by 30-40% over the past 25 years.
American conservatives say the answer lies in boosting marriage; the left focuses on redistribution. This newspaper would sweep away tax breaks such as mortgage-interest deduction that help richer people, and target more state spending on the poor. But the main focus should be education policy."

Surprise from the Seventies

As the Sexual Revolution of the 1970's unfolded one of the warnings by conservative groups was that children would suffer. It would seem that this warning has come true, and along with children the community has suffered in a surprising way: less social mobility.

The contemporary conservative reaction has been, "I told you so. Now let's go back to the good old ways. All you single moms: Get married!" This isn't likely to happen. It's also not likely that prosperous married families are going to strive for anything less than the best for their kids, so schemes to distribute wealth through taxing the rich and entitling the poor aren't going to help this problem, either.

This means that if we want to be:
o improving social mobility
o making things more socially equal
o making America a better place for all

We need to be looking for new ways of handling child raising and educating -- particularly for single parents because they are a large and growing class of child raisers.

Social Mobility, Education and Prosperity

This is an important issue because the whole community prospers as new and better ways of doing things are discovered and implemented. It's not obvious and not talked about much, but prosperity at the top is limited by prosperity at the bottom. An example of this is that the pharaohs families in Ancient Egypt were at the top of their prosperity chain, but they still had to eat food in season and they still suffered from deadly infectious diseases. In many ways they did not have life as good as even a poor American of today.

This is an example of how important discovering new ways of doing things is to the prosperity of the whole community -- top and bottom. This means, as the universal education enthusiasts of the 1800's espoused, that good education for everyone in the community brings prosperity to everyone in the community.

In America in the 2010's we are dropping the ball on this pillar. We need to recognize this and we need to be doing things differently. A vivid example of how much the ball has been dropped was the huge quantity of jaw-dropping dumbness spouted during the 2012 election campaign, on all sides and in the media. In 2012 Governor Bobby Jindal complained about Republicans becoming the party of stupid, but I see the bigger concern being America becoming the nation of stupid.

This is important, and in this day and age of lots of single parenting, child raising must be examined as much as child educating. We as a community need to be paying as much attention to child raising systems as we do to formal education systems... and both need a lot of attention.

What follows are some speculations I have on new child raising and educating systems. The goal of these is to have all the community better educated so we can all make better choices about how to run our communities and all have even more prosperity than we do today.

Child Raising Possibilities

The Matriarchy Neighborhood Approach

One possibility for a new child raising style is to deliberately encourage neighborly matriarchy -- encourage a group of women in a neighborhood to share child raising activities with all the other women and children of the neighborhood. The neighborhood becomes a sea of children mixed with a sea of child raisers, all pretty much equally accessible. This has the advantage of harmonizing with the old Neolithic Village way of doing things, so it is harmonizing with instinctive thinking.

One big obstacle to this style is the contemporary deep fear of child abusers, kidnappers and predators. Another is Us versus Them thinking about neighbors. But there's a lot of instinct supporting this matriarchy style, so this contemporary moral panic may be overcomeable.

Overcoming the fears will happen when there is a reliable program that child raisers can become part of, and becoming part of the program becomes expected.

The State-provided Child Care Approach

Getting children raised better is a community issue: Better raised children create a better community in the next decade. Just as the community currently provides schools, the community can provide day care and other child care options. I envision neighborhood playgrounds with standard supervision of some nature so latchkey kids can... no... are expected to go to the playground instead of sitting on a couch with a TV or video game. And more, there can be neighborhood field trips organized so that all the kids get to experience each other and the diverse world around them. The best way to handle this may be declaring some minimum child raising standards and a voucher system to pay for what is required.

And not just the kids, the parents should be expected to attend some of these activities on a regular basis. This is how they will get to know each other and how they will get to know what their kids are learning. Participating in these activities will come to be considered part of good parenting.

Developing new good advice

The heart of this improving battle is changing thinking and habits, so part of what will be needed is new good advice to be passed around the community. An example would be something like this for a truism: "For every hour you spend on self-indulgence spend an hour on improving you or your children." This meaning that if you spend time at the beauty parlor or spa, plan on spending equal time on at the playground, on homework, or on a field trip -- things that will improve the minds of you and your children.

Educating Possibilities

As the Industrial Revolution kicked in during the 1800's, it became clear that educating everyone in the community was a big advantage. This understanding was the foundation for universal education concept we live with today. This is why we have public schools and laws saying everyone must be educated.

This benefit hasn't changed. It has gotten more so. (Note: It will get less so when The Singularity happens and computers take over most of the manufacturing and service jobs, but we aren't there yet.)

For this reason it is important that our education system reflect the harsh reality that a lot of children working through the system come from poor, single parent environments. Since this is new, it means doing a lot of experimenting to figure out what will work well in this new harsh reality. Sadly, the current American public education system is heavily "encrusted" with traditions and work rules that worked well when the nuclear family predominated. This encrusted environment must be scrapped and replaced with one open to experimenting and innovating. This is the way we will see big progress in better educating all our children.

The goal of these new systems should be to widen the number of people involved in raising a child. Over time in the US we have gone from the extended family to the nuclear family to the single parent. This shaving off of people involved in raising a child should be reversed. There should be lots of people involved again.

And, again, this new school environment and this new child care environment need to feed back on each other. They should pay attention to each other.

Update: This 28 Feb 13 Reason article, Obama's Lopsided Education Policy The president is guided by ideology rather than evidence by
Shikha Dalmia & Lisa Snell, is an example of both how emotional this issue is and how much we still have to learn. At this stage we aren't even close to figuring out what good systems are for dealing with child raising in modern circumstances. This means we need to be supporting systems with lots and lots of experimenting.

Update: This 8 Mar 13 WSJ The Numbers Guy article, No Easy Lessons in Assessing Preschool Payoff by Carl Bialik, talks about the difficulties in assessing the value of pre-school educating that will show up as a child grows older. This indicates that this educating is currently a good intention: How to do it reliably and effectively is going to take a lot more experimenting. In this it is similar to the current state of K-12 educating as well. Both need a lot more experimenting conducted and this is why I support voucher systems that let experimenting and competing happen.

Update: This 16 Mar 13 Economist article, Changing families: The post-nuclear age -- Forget the traditional family. There are now three distinct models, associated with professionals, working-class natives and immigrants, talks about this same issue as it affects the UK. The problems are similar.

Update: Tyler Perry's movie The Single Mom's Club (2014) addresses this issue in Hollywood style.

Update: This 27 May 14 article, $10 million dorm at College of St. Mary benefits single mothers by Kate Howard Perry, talks about deliberately setting up a better environment for single mother child raising. From the article, "Nora McGill kisses her daughter Marie, 4, goodnight in their dorm room in College of St. Mary’s Madonna Hall. The college says the $10 million dorm for single mothers and their children reflects its commitment to help single moms succeed. When McGill graduates next year, she'll miss the community of women like herself." And further, "At College of St. Mary, the cost is the same as living in the college’s other dorm, and the mothers pay the same tuition rates. But their children eat free on their meal plan, and they have a built-in support system of baby sitters and a network of college staffers who consider the moms’ success to be their jobs.

The single mothers’ success rate still lags behind the rest of the college."

This last part indicates there is still experimenting and researching to be done to make this concept work better. Also it is a bit misdirected -- centering on the mother, not the child -- But it is a step in the right direction.

How Much State Involvement? How much Busybody Involvement?

Who should decide when a parent is doing it right or doing it wrong?

With local school boards and state Child Protective Services agencies (CPS) we have a lot of government involvement in these processes already. We also have lots of locally-given advice and lots of media bandwidth. In sum, there are dozens of places a child rearer can turn to for advice, and many of those will provide forceful advice that must be followed whether the parent wants to, or not.

This is not surprising. In the Neolithic Village environment most first time mothers were in their teens and Bride Thinkers (my term). They were young and inexperienced, so advice and support helped not only the young mother but the community as well. This means giving advice to first time mothers is supported by powerful instinct. What has changed dramatically since Neolithic times is the family relations surrounding that mother -- in those days the advice was accompanied by a lot of family support as well as advice.

What we now need to do is recognize that any forceful advice being given must be matched with forceful resource being provided. The community must put up money and warm bodies as well as mouth in dealing with this issue. We need to update the advice and support given single mothers. Again, we need to recognize that the better these children are raised, the better the whole community will function when these kids grow up. Our communities will support less "crazy" if the members are well educated.

This universal education pillar must be recognized as important again, and sincere attention paid to it, and it must be extended to include child raising as well as child educating.

Update 21 Apr 13: This update was inspired by an 11 Apr 13 Fortune column, America's wayward sons: Why they can't carry on by Nina Easton, which is another description of dysfunctional Sacred Masculine. From the article, "But even as outspoken women try to change that dynamic [the glass ceiling], a less noticed and equally troubling phenomenon is happening much further down the economic ladder: Men are disappearing from the bottom rungs. MIT economists David Autor and Melanie Wasserman spell it out in a new study: While women are adjusting to the 21st-century economy -- graduating from college at higher rates than men and then migrating into higher-paying jobs -- the average guy is moving backward. 'Although a significant minority of males continues to reach the highest echelons of achievement in education and labor markets, the median male is moving in the opposite direction,' the authors write in 'Wayward Sons' a study for the centrist think tank Third Way."

One thing I didn't mention earlier was Sacred Masculine thinking, something I have written about earlier. Generic mammalian males are loners. They live alone until mating time, when they join with female groups for a short while, and fight with each other in between servicing females. This loner style is a form of instinctive thinking still quite available to human males.

Thanks to many generations of strong language skills the benefits of being a cooperator instead of a loner are now also available in human male instinctive thinking as well. So, a choice can be made as to which "let your heart be your guide" thinking will be followed.

The social restructuring we are undergoing in the 21st century which is bringing more and more women into the workplace needs to take the Sacred Masculine into account. It is wonderful for women to be working, but we need to be sure it stays wonderful for men to be working, too. This is not a given, this must be given thought.


Update: This 6 Jul 13 Economist article, The silver-haired safety net, is describing another way of replacing the nuclear family as the center of child-raising: using grandparents rather than parents as the center. From the article, "What is new is that, as the nuclear family frays, grandparents are taking more and more of the strain. Of the 75m children in America, 5.5m live in households headed by grandparents, a number that has risen by almost a million since 2005, according to the Census bureau."

Update: This 1 Feb 14 Economist article, Mobility, measured America is no less socially mobile than it was a generation ago, indicates that there is controversy over how much mobility has changed over the generations. From the article, "Just as the two sides have found something to agree on, however, a new study suggests the conventional wisdom may be wrong. Despite huge increases in inequality, America may be no less mobile a society than it was 40 years ago. ... Most likely, the answer lies in the nature of America’s inequality, whose main characteristic is the soaring share of overall income going to the top 1% (from 10% in 1980 to 22% in 2012). The correlation between vast wealth accruing to a tiny elite and the ability of people to move between the rest of the rungs of the income ladder may be small—at least for now."


--The End--