Take Other Kids to Work Day Highlights the Absurdity of Social Mobility

Richard Reeves of Brookings has a piece in Quartz where he argues that, for social mobility sake, people should not take their own kid to work. Instead, Reeves explains, they should take a kid from a different social class.

This week, parents are being urged to take their kids to work for the day. But here’s a better idea: Don’t. Strike a blow for equality by taking a kid from a different social background instead.

Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day is intended to get children thinking about their future careers, but by having parents take their own kids to work, we perpetuate class divides. If your mother is a lawyer, you spend the day in a law firm. If your dad stocks shelves in a grocery store, then—if he is even allowed to bring you along—that’s what you will see. If your parents are unemployed, you don’t have a chance to go anywhere at all. And so the wheel turns.

In addition to suffering from the cloying pseudo-profundity of a Brooks Brothers (Arthur and David) proposal, Reeves’ suggestion also incidentally underlines how absurd the whole social mobility policy world really is.

When Reeves talks about bringing lower class kids into upper class workplaces, this is how he describes it:

Too many children end up in similar positions to their parents on the social and economic ladder. Given this, the case for exposing disadvantaged kids to white-collar jobs is pretty clear.

The idea here is that this kind of exposure will help the kids get one of these white-collar jobs as an adult, rather than ending up in the same position as their parents.

But, when Reeves talks about bringing upper class kids into lower class workplaces, he describes it this way:

Teenagers from affluent backgrounds often live in a bubble, surrounded by friends, neighbors and fellow students who share similar backgrounds. “Our kids are increasingly growing up with kids like them who have parents like us,” writes the Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam in his book Our Kids. He warns this represents “an incipient class apartheid.” It couldn’t hurt for upper-middle-class kids to step outside their bubble and spend a day in a working-class job.

So, for rich kids, the goal of this switcheroo is not to get them to take working-class jobs when they are adults. Rather, it is to give them a taste of how the other half lives in order to push back against social distance, or “class apartheid” in Putnam’s parlance.

But if rich kids are not going to be pushed downward into lower class jobs, then how will the poor kids progress upward into higher class jobs? Relative mobility requires upper class kids to descend the labor market hierarchy so that lower class kids can ascend it. Yet, Reeves’ own cutesy social mobility proposal betrays the brute reality that everyone secretly knows here: there is no way upper class parents are going to let that happen to their kids, certainly not in this society.

Social mobility policy and rhetoric is little more than a cruel show where we talk a big game about encouraging the disadvantaged to rise the ranks while fully knowing that rich parents will do absolutely everything in their power to keep that from happening. Brookings can invite 100 local DC public school students to their offices to meet Ron Haskins and hear him tell the war stories of how he gutted benefits for children like them, but unless Haskins is willing to raise his own kids to run a cashier at Walmart, no new spots at the top of the economic hierarchy will open up for those 100 kids to snag as adults.

None of this is to say that rich parents who do everything they can to give their kids every advantage in life are somehow doing something evil. Caring for and helping family and friends is a virtuous thing to do and a world where we demanded that people let those close to them flounder would be dystopian in many ways. But this is precisely the point: true social mobility would require an enormous level of restraint by rich parents when it comes to their children. And that is never going to happen.

What this means is that the primary focus of those interested in a fair economy should not be chasing some social mobility pipe dream. Rather, it should be on cramming down the income and wealth differences between the classes.

Tax Day and the Rich

On Tax Day in America, we all recognize two important traditions. First, like all days, we salute the troops for making Tax Day possible. Second, we rehash stuff that has been beaten into the ground so much that you want to die reading about it.

This year, the latter tradition is being carried on by writing takes about Donald Trump not releasing his tax returns. Nobody really cares that much about this topic, not even those who pretend to. But for some reason, some power players in the non-profit and media sectors have decided that this is a thing we’re going to have to keep dealing with, and so we are.

As for me, I would like to respect the dead-horse-beating tradition by rehashing the issue of taxes and tax justice, especially as it pertains to the rich. I’ve written about this plenty of times before (see, e.g., I, II), which is precisely why it is a great candidate for this ritual.

You see, there is a problem with the way we talk about taxes and especially the way we talk about who pays them and what an individual’s “fair share” is. What we tend to do is group everyone into quintiles on the basis of their gross market income and then sum up how much tax is “paid” by each quintile. From there, depending on the point we are trying to make, we might also then divide each quintile’s taxes paid by their gross market income in order to get their tax rate.

But what is a gross market income exactly? Why have we decided to use that to assign people to groups and then use that to divide taxes paid by? What is so important about it? Is it people’s real income? Is it their separate-from-government income? What makes it so special?

Gross market income is how much money each person would have received from factor payments in a hypothetical world where taxes did not exist but the tax-funded political economic system that factor payments depend upon somehow still did. More clearly, gross market income is the amount of income paid out to capital and labor “before” (as an accounting matter) we deduct taxes.

The reason we use this particular figure in so many things is because, under prevailing capitalist ideology, factor payments are understood as your real, deep, separate-from-government income. Everything else, whether it is taxes or public benefits, is treated as if it invades that natural, pre-political distribution of income. This particular understanding serves to legitimize the capitalist order and those who benefit the most from it, which, as any good Gramscian will tell you, is probably why it is so pervasive.

It certainly is not pervasive because it makes sense. After all, the magnitude and distribution of factor payments are no more removed from politically-imposed economic institutions than transfer payments or anything else. The rich are not a freestanding class of people that the government then comes in and taxes. Rather, the rich are created by the government when the government puts in place the institutions that direct all that factor income to them in the first place.

Given this reality, the proper way to understand taxes is not as something that takes from each person’s income, but rather as something that — along with factor payments, transfer payments, and every other income institution — determines each person’s income.

The idea of “the rich paying their fair share” understood as remitting taxes equal to some percent of the factor payments our system directs their way is ultimately incoherent. The proper amount of tax rich people should “pay” is not determined by grasping abstractly at tax rates, but rather by determining what taxes are necessary to achieve a fair distribution of income in society.

Asian Poverty Varies a Lot by Group

Andrew Sullivan has a post where he argues that the economic success of Asians in the United States suggests that the lack of success of other groups cannot be chalked up to racism. One response to this kind of argument is that, as a historical matter, anti-Asian racism did hold Asians back and Asians only began to succeed when that racism receded for a number of badly-motivated reasons (see Ellen Wu). In addition to that point, I think it is useful to note that Asian economic success also varies a lot by group.

Analysis on Asian subgroups is often hard to come by because they are such a small share of the overall population that it is difficult to get good sample sizes. However, if you use the 5-year American Community Survey (ACS) files, you can get enough responses to focus in on Asian subgroups. This is what I have done for this post, using the 2011-2015 ACS data.

Here are the poverty rates for the various racial groups in this data set.

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During this period, Asians had lower poverty than the population in general, but higher poverty than non-Hispanic whites. Nonetheless, it is the case that when you analyze Asians all together, their poverty situation is much different from every other non-white group.

But here are the poverty rates of various Asian subgroups from the same data set.

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Some Asian groups are doing well but others are doing very poorly. Cambodians and Hmong people for instance have poverty rates that are similar to those of Blacks, Natives, and Latinos.

Statements like the one Sullivan made do not just wave over the complicated history of the matter. They also mislead people about the current situation of Asians in America. When you group them all together, the subgroups that are doing well make up a big enough share of the overall Asian population that you get some relatively good overall statistics. But the reality is that “Asians” refers to many different groups that have very divergent economic situations.