measure of equality of opportunity across countries.
Even though mobility and inequality are correlated—higher levels of inequality mean that parental
resources weigh more on individual attainment—
mobility matters in and of itself for at least three reasons. The first of these is normative. A society that
fails to value equal opportunity and merit over social
background and economic status is simply unjust.
Social mobility also matters from an efficiency perspective. A social and economic system that does
not reward individual merit wastes its most precious
resource: human capital and its corresponding potential for innovation. Finally, immobility threatens
social integration and can lead to social conflict.
I examine mobility in Mexico using a household
index of economic well-being based on the occupational status of the head, as well as a set of household
durables, services and assets ranging from running
water and computer ownership to financial assets
for parents and children. This index closely gauges
the permanent income of families, avoiding the distortions from short-term year-to-year fluctuations. By
dividing the economic well-being index into quintiles for the parents and the children, we can evaluate the extent to which advantage and disadvantage
persist across generations.
As figure 1 shows, Mexican mobility is limited.
Wealth, as well as poverty, is reproduced across generations. In 2006, those who came from the poorest
quintile had almost a 50 percent chance of staying
there. Their possibility of reaching the wealthiest
quintile was a depressing 4 percent. Moving to the
other extreme, for those who came from the wealthiest quintile, the chances of retaining their advantaged
Florencia Torche is an assistant professor of
sociology at New York University and at the
Catholic University of Chile. She is also assistant
director of the Center for the Study of Wealth
and Inequality at Columbia University.
status is 60 percent, and the chance of remaining in
the top two quintiles is a solid 85 percent. In other
words, if you’re born wealthy in Mexico, you’re likely to stay there. If you’re born poor (the two lowest
quintiles) you’re about 74 percent likely to remain
Is the Mexican level of intergenerational immobility unusual? For the purposes of comparison I look
at Chile, which has comparable levels of economic
development and inequality, and Sweden, known for
its high mobility.
The cross-country comparison suggests that the
lack of mobility is far greater in Mexico. The reproduction of poverty and of wealth is almost twice as large
in Mexico as in Sweden. Even when compared with
Chile, Mexican mobility appears restricted: the intergenerational reproduction of poverty reaches 48 percent versus 34 percent, and the reproduction of wealth
reaches 59 percent versus 46 percent.
Why So Static?
What accounts for the substantial reproduction of
wealth and poverty? The most important determinant
of mobility is education, which plays a dual role. Education is both the main source of social reproduction,
because children’s educational attainment crucially
depends on parental resources and investments, and
the main avenue for social mobility.
Education matters for two additional reasons.
First, an important determinant of “excess inequality”
is the high educational returns to skilled workers, in
particular those with college degrees. The high “
college premium” has increased over the last t wo decades
as a result of the economic liberalization that boosted the demand for skilled workers. Second, the distribution of education is more easily modified through
government policies and has broader popular support
than the redistribution of other assets, such as land
or financial wealth.
Overall, Mexico has benefited from notable
educational upgrading across generations. For
example, while a full 40 percent of the parents of
Mexican adults did not have any formal schooling,
only 10 percent of their grandchildren lack schooling. Among parents, only 4 percent had any higher