Social mobility and ethnicity in the UK

In a guest post, Neil Smith reviews the evidence – including his own – on the links between ethnicity and life chances in the UK, and why this matters for the drive to improve social mobility.

In March 2012, we heard that over a half of the UK’s Black youths aged between 16 and 24 were unemployed – a finding that is indicative of the persistence of ethnic inequalities in the labour market. This headline was sadly predictable. Almost a decade ago, an investigation clearly showed that Black Caribbean people experienced a considerably higher risk of being unemployed, not only compared to White people, but also than those in Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups.

The latest figures highlight the failure of recent attempts at sending equally qualified school leavers into the market to compete at the same levels, regardless of social or ethnic background. But one criticism of the crude analysis of the ONS data above is the lack of information surrounding the social and economic backgrounds of the unemployed Black youths. Is it ethnicity that determines the labour market successes, or is it instead education and class background?

Beyond the headlines

The importance of these factors in determining socioeconomic circumstances has recently been investigated across a range of ethnic minority groups. A Joseph Rowntree Foundation report into the life chances of Britain’s minority ethnic communities tracked 150,000 census respondents between 1971 and 2001. Rather than follow up people’s employment status the study instead tracked each individual’s social class position over time. Those people who moved up a social class from working or intermediate origins were deemed upwardly mobile.

What this found was that social mobility varies considerably by ethnic group. Black Caribbean, Black African, Chinese, Indian and White migrant groups all had a higher level of upward mobility compared to their White counterparts. Additionally the Indian, White non-migrant and White migrant groups were the most likely to maintain their class privilege. However, for Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups, the opposite was found. These groups experienced lower levels of class mobility than the White group, and any social class advantage inherited from the parents was more likely to be lost in the children’s generation.

Importantly for the Black Caribbean youth in the news today, people from this group were more likely than all others to be unemployed, even when compared to people of other ethnic groups with the same class origins. The message is that class background matters in determining life chances, but so does ethnic background. Importantly, this ethnic effect is more prominent for some groups than others.

Ethnicity and education

So, if class background cannot completely explain current social position, what about the influence of educational qualifications? Do the same qualifications provide equal advantages to all ethnic groups? Well, after accounting for the low starting social class position of Pakistani and Bangladeshi migrants, these groups are still less likely to be upwardly mobile than their White counterparts (again using the JRF report from the Census).

Yet when higher levels of educational qualifications were gained by these two groups, they still did not achieve parity with the White non-migrant group. Such ethnic differences in intergenerational mobility, which cannot be explained by class origins or by educational performance, have been attributed to the effects of an ‘ethnic penalty’. This refers to factors which are distinct to an ethnic minority group and which has commonly been explained by discrimination within the labour market, and within society generally. Other plausible explanations might include the effects of family size and structure, marriage effects (in particular the effect of post-marriage employment trends for women), area based effects (although this particular investigation did account for such phenomenon), or the legacy of migration history with more recent arrivals having less time to establish themselves within society.

Why social mobility strategies need to consider ethnicity

These findings stretch back over the past 30 years and are still being replicated today. They show that ethnicity continues to outweigh social origins and education in determining upward movement and social success, especially within the Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups. Education is often cited as the key to promoting mobility, but education is not only differentiated across ethnic groups, it is a less powerful mediator of upward mobility in groups with lower social class origins.

Unless interventions are made for specific ethnic minority groups, the gap in social inequalities may actually widen as the socioeconomically advantaged benefit from education to a greater extent than those from more humble origins.

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