The Hidden Downside of Social Mobility

February 5, 2018

Although the idea of social mobility is the foundation of the American Dream, by most measures, mobility in the United States has been stagnant or declining for decades. A 2016 report by Raj Chetty (Stanford University) and colleagues found that absolute income mobility—measured by the percentage of children who earn more than their parents—fell by almost 40% in the period between 1940 and 1980.

But what about those who do overcome the odds and ascend the socioeconomic ladder? A new paper in Science Direct by former RSF visiting scholar Mesmin Destin and Regine Debrosse (Northwestern University) explores the psychological consequences of upward social mobility and suggests that at a time of significant economic inequality, even moving up the class ladder may have some unexpected negative effects on individuals’ well-being. Because people’s socioeconomic circumstances shape the way they perceive both themselves and their worlds, Destin and Debrosse argue that “status uncertainty” can occur when individuals move from one position on the socioeconomic hierarchy to another. College students from low-income backgrounds, for example, may feel out of place or “uncertain about their socioeconomic status” when they attend prestigious universities. According to Destin and Debrosse, this feeling can decrease “the likelihood that low SES college students come to strongly identify with their college community, which can precipitate a cascade of issues associated with social disengagement.”

A recent feature in the Guardian titled “Class Passing: How Do You Learn the Rules of Being Rich?” also illustrates this concept. The subjects interviewed for the story, who grew up in low-income circumstances and “dramatically changed their social class” as adults, all experienced some version of what Destin and Debrosse call “status uncertainty.” Many talked about the emotional difficulties associated with moving up the socioeconomic ladder, including struggling to navigate unfamiliar norms and social codes, inadvertently developing feelings of distance from lower-SES friends and family, and diminished self-confidence. As Destin and Debrosse point out, the psychological consequences of status uncertainly can ultimately “exacerbate rather than combat inequality, particularly in terms of health and well-being outcomes.”

While increasing social mobility in the U.S. remains an admirable goal for many policymakers, Destin and Debrosse’s report cautions that mobility alone may not be enough to address the negative effects of a deeply unequal society.

Read Destin and Debrosse’s report at Science Direct.

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