The Agenda

Kin Networks and Upward Mobility

Unfortunately, I can’t read the new OECD’s “How’s life? Measuring well-being,” a new report on well-being across the OECD, so I’ll draw on Catherine Rampell’s characterization of some of the findings within:

The United States is in the middle of the pack of the countries surveyed, with 92.3 percent of Americans saying they have a support network. Compare this to a country like India, where only 59.3 percent of people say they have a network they can depend on in times of need.

Having friends and family you can lean on is particularly important for those who are more likely to need support from time to time — that is, lower-income people.

Unfortunately, the O.E.C.D. found that people with lower incomes and less education were least likely to have a personal social safety net.

This reminded me of one of my favorite books of all time, Katherine Newman’s Chutes and Ladders. Paul Tough wrote an able review of the book back in 2006:

In 1993, Katherine S. Newman, then a professor in the anthropology department at Columbia University, began conducting interviews with 300 or so young men and women who had applied for just about the least promising jobs you could think of: flipping burgers and running registers at a fast-food franchise in Harlem. Two hundred of them were paid minimum wage to do mind-numbing work, and they were the lucky ones; the other 100 were turned down for those same ill-paying, mind-numbing jobs. It was, Newman says, a terrible time to be a low-wage worker in the inner city.

Newman continued to follow those workers over the next decade:

About a third of the 40 people she tracked down and re-interviewed in 2002 were unemployed or still making the minimum wage. But most had moved up, and almost a quarter were what she calls “high fliers,” making $15.46 an hour or more. Newman’s fractions don’t tell you a whole lot, as she herself admits; she’s an anthropologist, not an economist, and her sample size is too small to prove much of anything. Her book is valuable, though, as a collection of carefully drawn portraits of people who got their start working at the bottom rung of the American economy — in a lousy job, in a lousy neighborhood, at the tail end of a recession — and in many cases managed to escape a situation that seemed inescapable.

Depressingly, one imagines that many of these individuals have fared less well over the last decade, particularly in the post-crisis years. Yet Newman’s observations about the qualities of the “high fliers” are of interest.

The following is from page 41:

The pathway from Burger Barn to their current jobs was far from straightforward. It was fully of blind alleys and exploitative bosses, as well as opportunities that boosted their prospects higher than they had ever thought possible. Hard work and drive have paid off for them, but networks and contacts were essential to making those virtues matter. Family supports were critical, particularly once Carmen and Sal had kids of their own. It is a saga of zigs and zags rather than a straight line to success, and even though they have done well relative to their starting point, they cannot afford anything larger than a one-bedroom apartment, especially if they want to save. 

Carmen and Salvador experienced a number of reversals, including a serious medical emergency. Sal took on a second job, and he reluctantly agreed when Carmen decided that she wanted to go back to work some time after the birth of her first child. Public assistance, and in particular Medicaid, proved crucial to keeping the family afloat. Eventually, after spending several years working as a hostess, Carmen returned to school. Sal, meanwhile, continued to work his way up the jobs ladder, though he didn’t have much luck in pursuing his GED. Both Carmen and Sal were helped on innumerable occasions by relatives, particularly when it came to providing childcare. This gave Carmen just enough breathing room to pursue various educational opportunities.

As Rampell writes, “people with lower incomes and less education were least likely to have a personal social safety net.” It also seems to be true that personal social safety nets greatly facilitate moving up the economic ladder, which is why it’s not terribly surprising that those stuck at the bottom of the ladder tend not to have them — and why resource-centric efforts to help often yield meager results. Resource-centric efforts work best for those who have kin networks to draw on, because those who are embedded in strong kin networks are best placed to take advantage of the resources on offer. Short of the most aggressive paternalism, creating an opportunity will draw in those capable, willing, or interested in taking advantage of an opportunity. Subsidized education will generally be pursued by those who believe that education has value that outweighs the opportunity cost, or for that matter the tedium and stress it entails. Subsidized childcare will work for those willing to trust strangers with their children, and so on.   

This leads me back to Paul Tough’s review:

Newman is a patient and sympathetic reporter, and she asked her subjects deep questions about their work histories, their love lives, their politics and their dreams. A lot of what she heard from them will come as a surprise to anyone who has read much recent scholarship on the inner-city poor. The traditional approach of sociologists, Newman writes, is to see the inhabitants of urban ghettoes as outsiders “separated from the rest of American society,” in the grip of an “oppositional culture.” But the crowd she followed isn’t like that at all. They have a strong commitment to middle-class values, she reports, especially around work and welfare. They are, in fact, “closer to a conservative, ‘red state’ perspective than the liberal, ‘blue state’ view that most sociologists, myself included, subscribe to.” They moralize about deadbeats on welfare — even those who have been on welfare put down welfare — and they are proud of the steps, big and small, that they have taken toward middle-class respectability. (“You know that saying, ‘Keeping up with the Joneses?’ ” Adam asks at one point. “Well, I’m not keeping up with them. I am the Joneses.”)

Newman is not blind to the many disadvantages these former burger-flippers face in the marketplace, from outright racism to a lack of the casual social connections that middle-class Americans often use to find and land a job. The system really is sometimes rigged against these workers, and they know it. But despite all this, they speak persuasively and passionately about the way work, even rotten work, gives meaning to their lives. [Emphasis added]

This, incidentally, is why I find the anti-work discourse from some of our Marxist friends to be so arid and unconvincing. It ignores the “economics of becoming,” i.e., the idea that economic life is shaped by the narratives we as embedded individuals have about the kind of people we want to be, a perennial subject in these parts. 

Tough’s review also reminds us that those who’ve overcome hardship are often very unsentimental about having done so, and about those they’ve left behind at the bottom of the ladder. Some will see this as ungenerous and even cruel, while others will see the generosity of those who haven’t experienced the same journey as a product of ignorance or even condescension. I’m neutral in this particular dispute.