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.