When we talk or think about social mobility, we usually mean moving up. But there is another side to the mobility equation: someone needs to give up their slot at the top if there’s going to be room for other people to move up.
Richard Reeves, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, makes that point in “The Glass-Floor Problem,” his recent opinion piece in The New York Times.
“It’s kind of a statistical fact that you can only have so many people on the top rung of the ladder at any moment in time,” said Reeves. “If we do want more people from poor backgrounds making it to the top of the ladder, then by definition that means we do need some people coming down the ladder.”
Reeves says that some people who get to the top have benefited from their family background. For example, he says, some internships are geared toward the privileged. Elite colleges may give preference to applicants whose parents are alumni.
Reeves uses the phrase “opportunity hoarding” to describe people who already have a leg up making sure they keep it that way.
Reeves draws a distinction between “doing your very best for your children” and “pulling some strings for them and going in a place that is beyond sending them off into the world well equipped, and to some extent, trying to change the rules of the game in their favor. ”
He sums it up with a sports metaphor: “It’s the difference between being a great coach and bribing the referee.”
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