Inequality erodes opportunity, and limited opportunity exacerbates inequality. This vicious intergenerational cycle has brought inclusive growth into question, contributed to the rise of populist sentiment, and strained the social contract in many rich countries. The way forward for researchers and policy makers requires not only a clear understanding of the facts about what kind of inequality matters and how it matters, but also an ethical grounding that speaks to the outcomes and opportunities that are important to citizens not only in the here and now, but also in the next generation.
When comparing many countries, not just the rich but also across the entire globe, researchers have consistently found that the higher the level of income inequality about a generation ago, the more strongly children’s adult prospects are tied to their family backgrounds. This relationship between higher inequality and lower social mobility has become known as The Great Gatsby Curve.
Economic theory, statistical measurement, and public policy have all been most constructively informed by this picture when they explore
What kind of inequality matters?
What kind of social mobility do we care about?
Which cross-country comparisons are most judicious, from which policy learning is best informed?
Watch this interview produced by the Institute for New Economic Thinking ,who gave me the opportunity to explain what the Great Gatsby is, and highlight how it offers a constructive framework for deeper conversations about the relationship between inequality and social mobility.
It is the stated goal of the Canadian federal government to foster “a strong and inclusive labour market that provides every Canadian with opportunities for a good quality of life.” The legacy of COVID has, however, led to policy incoherence, with some significant reforms directly putting this goal into question.
In a medical sense, COVID-19, as highly contagious as it is, can be thought of as the great leveller. No one has immunity, and we face the health risk of this virus with a sense of our common humanity.
But in a socio-economic sense, it is not as contagious. The jobs some of us hold give us an economic immunity, and we face the economic risk of this virus with a very different sense of our interconnectedness.
If this is the case for equality of outcomes, then it is surely also so for equality of opportunity; the significant differences in social mobility between the rich countries hinting at the role governments play in determining the degree to which family background is destiny, the rich raising the next generation of rich adults, the poor seeing their children face low chances of upward mobility.
The Canadian federal government should enhance the human and financial capital of children in less wealthy families, enhance market incomes of lower paid workers, and enhance the security of working incomes by adapting three existing programs to new realities: widening their scope, making them more flexible, and making them easier to obtain.
The changing world of work is also a changing world of pay, a world that will likely lean toward greater wage rate inequalities, lower or stagnating incomes for the bottom 40 percent, and greater income insecurity for the broad majority.
I suggest three changes to current public policies that take incremental, but important, steps toward fostering capital accumulation among children from less wealthy families, increasing market incomes earned from that capital for the working poor, and finally enhancing income security for the broad majority.
These policies lean toward encouraging inclusive growth, in which the benefits of the new world of work and pay are broadly shared.
In this post I discuss the first policy proposal, which is:
Enhance human and financial capital by making community colleges tuition-free, and making the Canada Learning Bond more flexible