Social immobility: of queens and commoners

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass there is scene where Alice is compelled to have a running race with the Red Queen. As the pair begin the race Alice observes that all her efforts appear to get her nowhere and the Red Queen concurs.

‘Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.’

‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’

In evolutionary-based studies this tale is the source of the ‘Red Queen Hypothesis’ in which two or more competing entities are separated by relative advantage. It is a problem of co-evolutionary fitness in the jargon. James Derbyshire and I used this as a metaphor to explain why the ‘enterprise gap’, which was the difference in numbers of enterprise per capita, didn’t close during Labour’s reign even though this was the most aggressively targeted policy in economic development with several highly funded schemes such as local authority business growth incentive and local enterprise growth initiative.

If you consider that in 1998 the south east had 414 VAT registered firms per 10,000 adults while the north east had just over half of that with 211 VAT registered firms per 10,000 adults, a ‘gap’ of 203 firms. By 2008 the south east had increased by 13% to 471 firms compared to the north east’s growth of 17% to 247, a gap of 224 firms. So even though the north east had grown its stocks of firms by 4% more that south east, the gap had widened by 21 firms!

The lack of ‘catch-up’ is often blamed on an area ‘starting from a historically low base.’ If a policy is targeting the closure of a gap then the base is irrelevant, it’s the relative performance that matters. So in the example of regional enterprise stock, simply to maintain the gap at 203 firms would have required an increase of 32% for the north east assuming that south east rate stayed the same. This is more than twice the growth rate of firms for the south east. As the Red Queen states: ‘It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’

And that is a paradox, if you are doing all you can but only twice as fast is good enough, where will change ever come from? It is a paradox of advantage: advantage can only be diminished by increasing the performance of the disadvantaged to levels in excess of their resources.

I raise this problem of co-evolutionary fitness because it seems common to a number of areas of social change. The example I used was Labour trying to tackle deprivation through enterprise growth. While the current government has little policy towards ending deprivation, it has switched the focus to social mobility, in which the Red Queen’s race remains a stark phenomenon.

Last week two reports have raised the nature of ‘social immobility’ in the UK. The first, in a survey of social mobility in the journal Fiscal Studies, highlights that children from middle-income families gained most from the expansion of higher education. Taking two cohorts, born some 20 years apart, it was noted that the percentage of people from the lowest income groups entering HE grew from 9% to 10% while for middle-income families this change was from 24% to 37%.

One of the notable features the IFS study found was that the growth of HE in general was mirrored by a growth in post-graduate studies, which had a greater return – the better your level of education, the more you earn – and this remained largely the preserve of offspring of middle income families.

In the second report, from the OECD, the UK is found to do well in terms of educational attainment but not in terms of relative income. In short, for lower-income groups, including the lower-middle-income brackets, there is a return on investment in education but the gain is relatively small compared to higher income groups.

Although neither reports use the terms, to me both suggest that a co-evolutionary fitness problem is being expressed in the arena of social mobility. If the offspring of lower income families were to ‘catch-up’, the benefits from the supply-side – increased access to HE, for example – would have to be sufficient to close any ‘gap’ between them and the middle-income groups. This isn’t happening and whether we focus the policy lens on deprivation or social mobility we see this remains the dominion of the Red Queen.

If society is going to become less like Carroll’s perverse allegory we must look inventively to solving the paradox of advantage.


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11 years ago

I don’t think ‘starting from a low base’ is irrelevant. It’s because of the low base that performance in percentage terms has to be twice as ‘fast’ in the North East. I think Einstein’s theory of relativeity is apt here. How fast you’re running is relative to your current speed (the base you’re starting from).

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