Why Doesn't the Government Track Social Mobility?

Unlike poverty rates, the deficit, and other economic measures, the federal government has no standard way of tracking movement up the income ladder.

National Journal

One of the few areas of agreement now between Washington's warring lawmakers is the broad idea that kids should have the opportunity to rise up the income ladder as they age. It's the old Horatio Alger stories writ large for the political stage.

Yet despite this consensus, the federal government does not offer any standard way to measure so-called social mobility. We can read up on official poverty stats, or measurements of the federal deficit, but we do not track mobility at the federal level in the same systematic way.

That's why Richard Reeves, a fellow in economic studies and the policy director for the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, has offered up a modest proposal to create a federal "Office of Opportunity." "Adopting an official mobility measure is unlikely to require vast new data collection — though some investments would need to be made," he writes in his Brookings proposal. "It's more of a question of deciding mobility is worth measuring and promoting."

So, theoretically, how would the government go about measuring social mobility? Well, it could look at the proportion of children born in the bottom quintiles of the income ladder who rise to the top two quintiles. (That's a data point that Harvard economists recently relied on for their groundbreaking work on geography and intergenerational mobility). Other suggestions: Measuring the number of 4-year-olds enrolled in pre-school; high school graduation rates of those with grade point averages above 2.5; the number of people ages 25 to 49 who work; or the number of births within marriages. All of these statistics give economists and policymakers ways to map out the changes, or lack thereof, in movement up the income ladder.

The goal would be to create what Reeves calls a "dashboard" of annual, agreed-upon indicators — and to produce an annual report. This would give the federal government real data that, in turn, could inform policy decisions. "If you go straight to the policy without the data, it can be hard to find any agreement," he says. The Office of Opportunity could also evaluate other proposals from nonprofits or the private sector to promote social mobility. "Corporate hiring policies, for example, may have as great an impact on mobility as any number of federal K-12 initiatives," he writes.

The United Kingdom and New Zealand's Treasury Department already run something similar. The U.K. government, for instance, collects and publishes 17 indicators intended to gauge long-term mobility. Both countries' efforts offer models for the U.S.

For that matter, so does the federal government's own nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which publishes report after report about the state of government spending and develops cost estimates on legislation. Like the CBO, the Office of Opportunity would be small and independent so that both Democrats and Republicans took it seriously. Reeves estimates it would cost around $10 million a year to fund such an office.

So far, Reeves' proposal has not generated any serious interest within the halls of the federal government despite meetings with congressional lawmakers from both parties. But he's also met with city and state officials around the country, including in Colorado, he says, about developing local measures of mobility. That's an intriguing idea for states and cities, as they increasingly become the best laboratories for policy decisions.