Remember “The Jeffersons”? The black family that lived next door to Archie Bunker on “All in the Family” became so popular that Norman Lear spun them off to their own show wherein family patriarch George Jefferson, an upwardly mobile entrepreneur, moved up to “a dee-lux apartment in the sky” where they were the only black family.
George was bombastic, quick-tempered and politically incorrect much like Archie Bunker. The new show exposed the bigotry of the white upper class of the time but also gave voice to the reverse bigotry of Archie’s mirror image.
Jefferson succeeded by guile, hard work and shrewdness just like his white counterparts.
Several economic studies of the last 20 years or so would suggest that George Jefferson’s upward mobility is rare, no matter the color of your skin. A Harvard study published last fall suggests that social mobility in the US hasn’t changed much over time but varies a great deal by geography. Ranking 50 metro areas by the percent of the population that moves from the bottom 20% to the top 20%, the study concludes that the factors leading to better social mobility are “less segregation, less income inequality, better schools, greater social capital, and more stable families”. San Jose, CA tops the list and Charlotte, NC is at the bottom.
In the late 1990’s the US Department of Education undertook an extensive study of 22,000 kindergarten students, examining their performance at an early age and identifying the social factors that contribute to their success or failure. The study – the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) – attributed success to the level of the mother’s education, the number of books in the household and two parent families, among many other factors. Black children underperformed all others but if one controls for the other factors, black children performed as well as their white and Asian peers.
In other words, there was no difference in the performance of white and black children from two parent families with a well-educated mother and a home full of books.
University of California economics professor Gregory Clark took a different approach to examining social mobility. He studied success based upon surname. His findings suggest that lineage has more impact on success than all other factors combined.
“This is true in Sweden, a social welfare state; England, where industrial capitalism was born; the United States, one of the most heterogeneous societies in history; and India, a fairly new democracy hobbled by the legacy of caste. Capitalism has not led to pervasive, rapid mobility. Nor have democratization, mass public education, the decline of nepotism, redistributive taxation, the emancipation of women, or even, as in China, socialist revolution,” claims Professor Clark.
Ashkenazi Jews named Katz, Scots named MacDonald and Chinese named Wang are more likely than their peers to be successful.
The idea that genetics play a larger role than all other factors in determining success flies in the face of our instincts as parents. But, Professor Clark’s conclusions are supported by other studies including the Colorado Adoption Project, which followed the lives of 245 babies put up for adoption. The conclusion? (You’re not going to like this.) The study found no correlation between a child’s personality traits and those of their adoptive parents. In other words, in the battle of nature vs. nurture, nature wins!
So, parents can do only so much to improve their children’s prospects. Provide a stable family life, read to them and send them to a better school if you have the choice. Other advantages are an accident of birth.
When I wrote about the topic of increasing the minimum wage a few weeks ago, some respondents slammed me for advocating that the poor just “need to work harder and stop whining”. But, that was not my intention.
The thrust of my argument is this: raising the minimum wage will do nothing to address income inequality or social mobility. An American view of a just society encompasses equality of opportunity and that is the key to improving on both scores.
We need better schools and better families, particularly in racially segregated neighborhoods. Local communities must come together to achieve the needed progress. To quote Germaine Smith-Baugh, CEO of the Urban League of Broward County (FL), “Give me a family and I’ll give you a block. Give me a block and I’ll give you a neighborhood. Give me a neighborhood and I’ll give you a community.”
The federal government has done its part. Professor Clark’s findings suggest that the civil rights legislation of the 1960’s has helped African-American descendants of slaves achieve more starting in the 1970’s.
Perhaps that explains George Jefferson’s popularity. But, it doesn’t explain his success. His success is the result of his guile, hard work and shrewdness.
WHO WILL LEAD?