Anneliese Dodds joins economists on social mobility panel

Anneliese Dodds, MP for Oxford East and member of the Labour shadow cabinet, joined Professors Raj Chetty and Joseph Stiglitz on a panel discussing modern social mobility on 22nd May.

The panel was titled ‘Inequality and Social Mobility in the 21st Century: New Challenges and Opportunities’. It was held in the University of Oxford’s Mathematics Institute, the Andrew Wiles Building, and hosted by Sir John Vickers, Warden of All Souls College.

Raj Chetty, Professor of Public Economics at Harvard University, was the principal speaker and the panel served to welcome him as the Sanjaya Lall Visiting Professor of Business and Development at Oxford.

Chetty presented data focused around the variation of social mobility across neighbourhoods in both the United States and the UK, looking at how the concept of the American Dream was fading away.

This was demonstrated by 50% of children born in 1980 earning more than their parents did at 35, compared to 92% of children born in 1940. Various social factors combine to make it much more difficult for later generations to move up the economic ladder.

Chetty serves as director of the company Opportunity Insights, which has produced an interactive online map of the United States showing variation in childrens’ social mobility. Utilising anonymised tax returns, the ‘Opportunity Atlas’ traces the roots of modern-day affluence and poverty to where people grew up and spotlights areas where people have missed out on opportunities. 

By entering an address in New York City during his talk, Chetty demonstrated how even two housing blocks on the same street can have radically different levels of access to employment opportunities. These opportunities depend on the availability of higher education, social capital, and basic needs like food and healthcare.

In focusing on higher education for part of his presentation, Chetty highlighted how multiple factors must be considered when exploring social mobility. For instance, lower-income students at highly selective universities like Harvard and Oxford are much more likely to earn substantially more than their parents than students of other universities.

However, these selective institutions do not take in enough lower-income students for this to have a wide-reaching economic effect. Other universities take on a lot more children from lower-income families and consequently their average chances of upward social mobility are lessened.

Chetty concluded by touching on social mobility in other parts of the world. He noted that his parents came from an area of India with one of the highest social mobility rates, expressing he doubted he would be where he is today without the opportunities they had.

Joseph Stiglitz, Professor at Columbia University and recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, followed Chetty’s talk. He brought to attention the importance of Chetty’s work in refuting the ideals of neoliberal economics, arguing that any discussion of improving economic opportunities had to include redistributive taxation. 

Stiglitz also linked the lack of opportunity in certain areas of the US to the wider political dysfunction of recent years. He suggested that those in the Deep South, where opportunities were much lower, voted for more extreme candidates like Donald Trump out of their dissatisfaction with the current economic system.

Dodds was the final speaker of the night and managed to link Chetty and Stiglitz’s notions of American social mobility with the economic situation of the UK. 

As a former lecturer in public policy before entering politics, Dodds spoke with authority on geographical inequality in the UK. She criticised the Conservative government’s levelling up agenda, arguing that it mostly focused on the economic differences between regions rather than differences within them.

Regarding employability in the UK, Dodds expressed concern about increased digitisation and automation, suggesting that former working-class routes into affluence like accounting were being taken over by automated systems.

She spoke of the increased modern importance of using ‘the Bank of Mum and Dad’ to get on the housing ladder, something echoed by Stiglitz earlier in the panel when he joked that the most important choice a young person must make is their choice of parents.

The panel event and Chetty’s visiting professorship were organised by the Sanjaya Lall Memorial Fund, established in 2011 in honour of a late Professor of Economics at Oxford. 

Sanjaya Lall was a Fellow of Green College, a predecessor to the modern Green Templeton College, for over thirty years. Green Templeton College co-sponsored the panel and the visiting professorship is accompanied by a visiting fellowship of the college.

Image credit: Cicero Group via a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license

Image description: Anneliese Dodds in 2015.