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Social Mobility

Merit, Privilege or Slumdog Millionaires? Income Inequality and Social Mobility

Duncan Green's picture

In memory of Sebastian Levine, who liked to read these posts.

This post is written by Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva, Oxfam’s Head of Research (twitter @rivefuentes)

In Danny Boyle’s movie Slumdog Millionaire, the young character wins a large pot of money against all odds. The movie is a fantasy tale for all practical purposes. The hero knows the responses posed to him in a quiz show through a number of coincidences and lucky breaks. It was his only chance to become wealthy.

What type of societies give better, more just chances to everyone? What is the connection between opportunity and socio-economic disparities? There are, at the risk of being simplistic, two broad sources of inequality: inequality resulting from individual entrepreneurship and effort (I’ll call it merit inequality) and the inequality that reproduces privilege and elite capture (I’ll call it privilege inequality).

A simple way to discover whether inequality is actually a result of merit is to think how far effort and hard work can take us. I recently heard Kaushik Basu, the new Chief Economist at the World Bank, detail an anecdote about this during a meeting with civil society people in London.  When Basu visits his home city of Kolkata he goes for long walks and sometimes he wanders around a privileged district that stands in sharp contrast with the nearby slums. The close proximity of the two vastly different lifestyles ensures that slum dwellers also visit this district. Then Basu said, to the best of my recollection: “it is not fair to tell a kid in the slum that by working hard he will be able to achieve the wealth needed to live in that neighbourhood.”

Quote of the Week: Malcolm Gladwell

Sina Odugbemi's picture

“Social and economic mobility, in any system, is essentially slack arbitrage: hard work is a successful strategy for those at the bottom because those at the top no longer work so hard. By custom, we disparage the idleness of the idle rich. We should encourage it. It is our best chance of taking their place. “

 

-Malcolm Gladwell, Staff Writer, The New Yorker

-As quoted in The New Yorker article, Slackers, July 30, 2012.