The children of the poor tend to end up poor. The children of the elite seem pre-ordained to inherit a good part of their parents’ status and income. Is that just?
Things aren’t as bad as they were. In developed economies, social stratification has far less effect on children today than a century ago. The modern gulf is between developed and developing economies. In rich countries most people are middle class and the gap in lifestyle and education between poor and rich has narrowed.
Still, family remains a big part of destiny. That’s especially true in the United States, in spite of its claim to being a land of opportunity. A recent paper by Raj Chetty and other economists found a strong tendency for American children to end up in about the same position as their parents in the hierarchy of income. An international comparison by Jo Blanden of the University of Surrey concluded that the economic weight of inheritance in the United States is currently relatively high among affluent countries.
It is hardly surprising that social positions persist through the generations. Just look at the environment in which children grow up. The more privileged the young, the more they tend to absorb the sophisticated discussions of their more educated parents, the more likely they are to be pushed and supported, and the more potential employers will find their manners and connections pleasing. Hence Chetty’s conclusion that the parents who can afford to live in a certain community are likely to produce children who can afford to live in similar communities. Conversely, the poorer the parents, the less socially propitious the children’s role models, schools and behaviour.
For anyone who believes that all children should have an equal opportunity in life, any tendency for social position to be inherited is simply a bad thing. Yet egalitarians who happen to be well-off do make exceptions for their own offspring. Like almost all parents, they work hard to help the next generation.