Pursuing Socioeconomic Mobility

Pam Sornson, JD

Pam Sornson, JD

May 2, 2023

Traditionally, the compensation for ‘labor’ – the performance of activities to achieve a particular economic end – has been valued according to the ‘class’ of the person performing it. In American society, being a member of one of five social ‘classes’ often determines how well that person succeeds economically throughout their life. Those born to the ‘upper’ classes earn more money for their labor and experience opportunities and benefits not available to those of the ‘lower’ classes. They typically do better financially over the course of their lives than their less well-off colleagues.

Further, people born into a ‘class’ usually remain in that class throughout their lives and don’t or can’t actively try to do otherwise. Those who do make the effort can achieve ‘upward social mobility’ – and a consequent economic mobility  – if they can overcome the obstacles impeding that progress. For individuals, breaking through those barriers – both visible and invisible – presents a formidable challenge. For communities, removing those barriers to social, economic, and upward mobility may be the key to securing future financial and social success for all their constituents.


What is Mobility?

The word ‘mobility’ means both:

the quality or state of being mobile, and

the ability or capacity to move.

Those elements are not the same, as is demonstrated by the challenges presented to people hoping to be ‘mobile;’ they may enjoy the ‘state’ of mobility, but societal barriers prevent them from actually moving.

In a societal context, the concept of mobility encompasses ‘social’ and ‘economic’ movement, and it can refer to downward, lateral, and upward activity in both instances.

‘Downward’ mobility, obviously, connotes a decline in capacity.

‘Lateral’ mobility reflects maintaining the status quo.

‘Upward’ mobility suggests an improvement in capacity.

Achieving both social and economic ‘upward mobility’ – socioeconomic mobility (SM) – is a goal many people pursue.

Social and economic goals are not the same, however, although achieving one often means achieving the other, too. ‘Socioeconomic’ movement happens when a person moves beyond their familial and economic class levels in either a decline or an advance. When upward movement happens, that person will gain a myriad of benefits that were not available in their previous life.


Measuring Socioeconomic Mobility

There are two measurements of ‘socioeconomic mobility,’ each determined by the particular person’s status in society:

‘Intergenerational mobility’ refers to changes in one’s socioeconomic position as compared to their parents (familial).

‘Intragenerational mobility’ refers to changes in economic status over the course of one’s lifetime (social ‘class’).

Having the capacity to achieve socioeconomic mobility of either type is linked to having opportunities to pursue it.

However, there are several barriers to achieving SM, primarily because the opportunities for advancement are not typically available to all. Unequal or inequitable regulatory hurdles frequently limit or bar access to resources that facilitate upward mobility as a form of economic growth. In too many cases, people are denied a comparable range of options for reasons unrelated to their capacity to work. Gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and even birthplace location are factors used to limit an individual’s opportunity to seek and achieve a higher financial status.

In other cases, those barriers are entrenched in a fundamental aspect of the societal infrastructure, creating a ‘closed’ mobility system. ‘Closed’ mobility systems intentionally deny equal rights of access to all their participants. ‘Open’ mobility systems, on the other hand, allow everyone access to resources that can enhance their SM status (although they, too, may incorporate a series of variables that can discourage success).


Closed Mobility Systems

In a ‘closed’ mobility system, specific segments of the population are intentionally excluded by definition from opportunities that would allow a change in their social status. The ‘caste’ system still exists in many countries today and is a closed mobility system. India’s caste system, for example, segments its Hindu population into five groups: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras, and Dalits (also known as ‘the untouchables’). The segments establish a hierarchy that puts Brahmins on top, and the actions and activities of the others are always made in deference to this group. Members of each caste are born into it, so they have no choice about their personal economic circumstances, nor are there ways for them to alter their reality.

Open Mobility Systems

In other communities, open mobility systems allow transitions between class segments. Optimally, all resources that drive upward mobility are available to all members of these communities. When that is the case, individuals can achieve ever-escalating levels of financial and social success depending on the effort they put into that process. Societies that encourage and embrace upward mobility as a community asset typically are healthier and more stable than those that don’t.

‘Hybrid’ Mobility Systems – an Ugly Truth

Other populations may appear – or even declare themselves – to be ‘open’ class societies while also integrating into their infrastructure both evident and hidden barriers to prevent people from moving upward economically; their rule base is essentially a closed system masked as an open one.

In this ‘hybrid’ construction, restrictions to movement are based on gender, race, etc. American society currently has several culturally embedded barriers that prevent people from moving out of their class toward a higher, more financially beneficial one. These barriers were built into the social network to dissuade lower classes from attaining upward mobility by making that objective almost impossible to achieve. This structural racism is used to retain existing – and foster further – discrimination against specific populations by manipulating public resources such as housing, employment, earning capacity, and access to health care, to name just a few.

Rules are set to make access to resources more difficult for some communities while easing it for others.

Using rent manipulations to contain certain population groups within specific neighborhoods, for example, can limit access to public transportation and education resources, healthy food sources, and other assets critical to well-being.

Maintaining these inequitable structures perpetuates the control of the upper classes over those in the lower classes and curtails the opportunity for the less well-off to pursue upward socioeconomic mobility.


Why Upward Mobility is Critical to Social – and Societal – Success

Suppressing economic growth in any segment of society also suppresses economic growth for the entire community. On the other hand, emerging research demonstrates that increased socioeconomic mobility within suppressed social sectors offers unmatched growth opportunities for the whole populace.

In a recent UK study, for example, data showed that even a modest increase in SM for a percentage of its citizens would significantly increase the country’s overall GDP. The finding underscores the premise that enhanced SM for some equals improved outcomes for all.

Further, pursuing that goal – upward SM for all – is essential for more than social justice reasons. Fundamentally, providing access to upward SM that facilitates class-crossing interactions and sharing builds relationships and stimulates economic growth.


For too long, talented, worthy, and exceptional people from the less-advantaged classes have been marginalized for reasons that have nothing to do with their value. When society removes the barriers they face and receives the values they offer, everyone – regardless of class – will benefit.


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