In a follow-up to the discussion of American inequality, here’s an interesting pair of charts produced by the Economic Policy Institute and found by hbd chick that show a measure of income mobility for men and women in the United States and a collection of northern European countries:

While this runs against the common narrative that women are an oppressed social class as evidenced by pay levels that are, on average, lower than those of men, it shouldn’t be surprising.  Indeed, it seems to me that the pay inequality and the difference in social mobility are two sides of the same coin: men tend to be the primary income earners of a household, whereas women have the option to either work, stay at home, or compromise between the two.

The tendency for women to have greater income mobility shows across all six of the countries shown above, with the U.S. simply showing the lowest level of income mobility in both cases.  The reasons that differentiate the United States from the five northern European countries shown are likely complex, but it seems to me that one contributing factor is America’s racial and ethnic diversity.  As the chart below shows, there is lower upward mobility among low income African Americans than their white counterparts and likewise higher downward mobility among middle income African Americans:

Furthermore, the distribution of African Americans and Hispanics, the two largest minority groups, is much more heavily skewed toward lower income levels:

I suspect that the gap between Hispanic and Black workers in the above chart is a reflection of the ongoing influx of illegal migrant workers from Mexico and Central America, the vast majority of which earn poverty-level wages.  If Hispanics show a similar level of income mobility to blacks, then their high representation in the lowest income bracket could go a long way to explaining why income mobility is so much lower in the United States than in the more ethnically homogeneous nations of northern Europe.

Like income inequality, lack of income mobility seems to me to be more of an indicator of a problem than a problem in and of itself.  Fortunately, there’s another chart from the Economic Policy Institute that shows a related issue: the link between income and college completion, independent of academic ability:

While certainly, one can argue that eighth grade test scores aren’t a perfect proxy for academic ability, the disparity between upper quartile and lower quartile groups with similar test scores suggests that there is a strong anti-meritocratic element to college completion in America and given the importance of a college education in the U.S. job market, it would seem that the degree to which income affects academic achievement rather than intellectual ability would also play as a major factor in reducing mobility.

I’m wary of making hard and fast policy proposals from this data.  It seems that an increased reliance on test scores by college admissions would reduce the extent to which income played a role in the completion of college, but performance on tests isn’t the only predictor of college success and American colleges may be taking that into account.  While it certainly looks as though a more objective system of admissions would make colleges more meritocratic, it’s hard to say whether the result  would ultimately be economically beneficial, though my suspicion is that it would be.

Ultimately, I’m not sure if the United States would be culturally or politically ready for greater meritocracy.  If a more objective admissions standard were put in place, colleges would have to move to a hard quota system to maintain racial and ethnic diversity as evidenced by the disparities in SAT scores: