David Grusky on Social Mobility

Tuesday, September 15, 2015
Working Group on Social Mobility

On Thursday, Sept. 10, David Grusky, the director of the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, gave a talk on the current state of academic work on mobility in the U.S.

Grusky, one of today’s leading sociologists specializing in the field of social mobility, spoke to the Cook Center’s Social Mobility Working Group.  He is currently a sociology professor at Stanford and the director of a number of initiatives aimed at studying and combatting inequality, including the California Welfare Laboratory. .

During his talk, Grusky said that despite the fact that the American Dream is rhetorically ingrained in U.S. history, academic interest in social mobility has steadily decreased over the last four decades, climaxing briefly in the 1970s. He said the subsequent dearth of academic work over the years has left today’s policy-makers unprepared to deal with a growing state of inequality.

Until recently, most analysis of social mobility still operated on what Grusky terms “modernization theory,” which held that forms of inequality would gradually be phased out by a U.S. culture committed to “universalism.”  Grusky said this culture is re-enforced by the country’s so-called unbiased bureaucratic institutions.

However, as time goes on it has become increasingly clear that institutional forms of inequality are not being phased out, Grusky said. In fact, he said they’ve become more entrenched according to two important points.

First, Grusky stated the statistical reality that there is more money at the top than there was 40 years ago, and it appears as though there will be even more money at the top in another 40 years. Second, money plays an increasingly crucial role in the acquisition of opportunity. Both of these phenomena can be explained at least in part by what Grusky calls “commodification of opportunity” theory.

Commodification of opportunity theory essentially claims that factors of life that could or once were considered rights and public goods are now bought and sold on the market. In a rudimentary analogy, Grusky compared it to airline amenities.

“At one time, you got a number of things just by being part of the club- baggage, food, drinks, etc. Today, you have to pay for those things,” he said.

The same is true today, of things like adequate schooling, housing, and end-of-life care. Theoretically, a person’s participation in the social contract guarantees them the right to adequate schooling and housing, but the increasing privatization of schools, slashing of funds, and segregationist housing policies have impeded this right.

So what are scholars to do? Grusky suggested transforming research methodologies to better reflect increasing inequality. For example, he and a team of researchers are studying intergenerational income elasticity and intergenerational earning elasticity, both of which determine the effects on a child’s income and earning prospects when parent income increases. The team retooled research methodologies to remove flaws that obscured findings and found that today’s intergenerational earning elasticity as well as the intergenerational income elasticity is at the upper end of modern estimates, especially when external factors like marriage are accounted for.

The research shows that money is worth more today in terms of access to opportunity than it was in years prior. Grusky’s research should directly affect the efforts of policy experts, specifically those who deal with welfare and inequality. According to Grusky, the “commodification of opportunity” model (and the inequality it breeds) can only be dealt with effectively in two ways; either policy makers have to work to de-commodify access to institutional opportunity, or wealth must be redistributed in such a way that those commodified opportunities are accessible to everyone. Either way, the conclusion is that there is much work to be done in order to bridge the growing gap between the rich and poor in the United States.

By Zachary Faircloth, T’19