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catallaxy in technical exile

Slipping social mobility

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Which Australian think-tank recently released a paper including the following sentence?:

Economic growth is an important vehicle for the enhancement of community wellbeing.

a) The Centre for Independent Studies
b) The Institute of Public Affairs
c) The Australia Institute

Surprisingly, the answer is (c), on p.58 of Fred Argy’s paper Equality of Opportunity in Australia: Myth and Reality. It must be part of the same rush of ideological even-handedness that led them to send me a copy of the paper, for which the rest of you will have to pay $21 if you want the 100 or so pages that follow from the free download on their website.

For those preferring to keep their $21, the gist of Argy’s argument also appears in an op-ed in this morning’s Age. Argy is pessimistic about the prospects of continued reasonably good social mobility in Australia:

As children and teenagers, they [people from low-income backgrounds] are often handicapped by unhelpful parental environments (in terms of knowledge acquisition, motivation, interpersonal relations etc) and have poorer access to quality education and health care and good living conditions. As grown-ups, they face more hurdles. They are less able to access life-long learning and training and the new digital technology. They are less likely to prevent or deal with health problems. They suffer location and public transport disadvantages and often find it harder to get low-cost housing in areas close to employment and services. They are constrained by their limited capacity to borrow, invest and bear risk. They are more exposed to “poverty traps” (situations in which they are no better off working than on welfare). Some of them (notably non-English-speaking migrants, Aborigines and mature-age workers) are sometimes hampered by various forms of discrimination. All this, combined with structural imbalances in the market for low-skilled labour, acutely limits their employment choices.

It’s easier to share Argy’s pessimism than his confidence that government programmes can significantly turn this around. While most Australians will, for as long as we ignore Clive Hamilton’s views on economic growth, continue to enjoy reasonable prospects there is a significant minority for whom things look much less promising.

As many people have pointed out, unksilled men are doing badly in the labour market (Bob Gregory has some of the historical statistics (pdf)). They lack the education for high-skilled jobs and the interpersonal skills for the little-education-required jobs in the service sector. Over the last decade we can see male workforce participation continuing to drop despite strong economic growth and female workforce participation continuing to rise. Labour market reform will perhaps have some positive effect here, but it will be at the margins – the economy has changed in ways that permanently disadvantage blue-collar male workers. At least in the medium term, the school system will continue to turn out yet more of them, with male school retention rates well-below female, and girls persistently getting better academic results than boys, reflected in strong female majorities in undergraduate courses (from memory, the numbers are worse than they appear in the ABS links, as male overseas students are improving the ratios).

The rise of so many men who cannot function adequately as breadwinners is spilling over into yet another problem, of kids without live-in natural parents and in households on below average incomes (‘unhelpful parental environments’, in Argy’s euphemistic language). The combined effects of these two factors is to put many more children than in previous generations at risk of problems that will flow over into adult disadvantage (some of the data is in Argy’s paper). Changed family structures have cultural as well as economic causes; neither can be easily reversed. Despite the renewed political emphasis on the family over the last decade, most of the statistics are worse now than in 1996.

I agree with Argy that opportunity for upward social mobility is a worthy goal, but for these people we’ll be struggling to keep them from slipping even further.


Written by Admin

April 18, 2006 at 9:15 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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