Why Culture Matters for Social Mobility
Religion & Liberty Online

Why Culture Matters for Social Mobility

Over the next decade one of the key arguments between progressives and conservatives will be over the significance of income and wealth inequality. Many conservatives cannot fathom how the idea that some people have more money than others is inherently problematic, which is why the discussions seem so alien to us. While it may seem uncharitable, I agree with Anthony Bradley that much, if not most, of the progressive fascination with income and wealth inequality is due to the “deep seated envy epidemic in this country.”

But I also think that the reason progressives prefer to focus on income inequality rather than a more important concern, such as social mobility, is because it allows them to dismiss the importance of culture. If wealth inequality is ipso facto immoral, then the solution is simple: redistribute wealth. However, if social mobility is the greater concern, then, as Thomas Sowell explains, cultural considerations for why it exists must be taken into account:

Even people regarded as serious academic scholars often measure social mobility by how many people from families in the lower part of the income distribution end up in higher income brackets. But social mobility — the opportunity to move up — cannot be measured solely by how much movement takes place.

Opportunity is just one factor in economic advancement. How well a given individual or group takes advantage of existing opportunities is another. Only by implicitly (and arbitrarily) assuming that a failure to rise must be due to society’s barriers can we say that American society no longer has opportunity for upward social mobility.

The very same attitudes and behavior that landed a father in a lower income bracket can land the son in that same bracket. But someone with a different set of attitudes and behavior may rise dramatically in the same society. Sometimes even a member of the same family may rise while a sibling stagnates or falls by the wayside.

Ironically, many of the very people who are promoting the idea that the “unfairness” of American society is the reason why some individuals and groups are not advancing are themselves a big part of the reason for the stagnation that occurs.

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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).