Friday, May 21, 2010

The Count

0... the number of consistent and up to date estimates of social mobility for Latin America. That's right folks, there's a real poverty of information out there and although the Count is an expert counter, he's having a hard time on this one.

Why social mobility you might ask? Well, as I'm sure you all know, Latin America has the worst income distribution in the world and if there's anything liberals like to tout it's that inequality is acceptable so long as there's social mobility. That is, who cares if there are tremendous gaps between the rich and poor so long as people born at the bottom are able to move to the top? (well, I do, but that's a different story)

In any case, last week the Count told us about the state of "human opportunity" in Latin America, showing us that although the region has a long way to go, most countries have made significant progress in achieving universal coverage of the most basic services children need in order to have an opportunity for success. But how does having access to basic services associated with "opportunity" actually translate into upward social mobility? In other words, it is one thing to have access to schooling, clean drinking water, etc. but quite another to actually be born poor and climb up the income ladder.

So instead of measuring access to services that are expected to create equal opportunity and lead to social mobility, as the World Bank's human opportunity index does, why not measure social mobility directly?

Well, because it is extremely difficult to get the data and especially so in developing countries. And even when we have good data, there are several conceptual challenges involved: do we care about intra or inter-generational mobility? (that is, changes in income within one's lifetime or from one generation to the next) Should mobility be defined purely in income terms or should it be defined using softer and often subjective variables like empowerment or self-worth?

On the data front the difficulties are equally large. To measure social mobility you need very detailed data sets that follow individuals through large chunks of time. In other words, you need to survey someone in their youth and follow up on them during their adult life. Any other approach would be a statistical abstraction. Also, to allow international comparisons it would be preferable to have comparable methodologies, something that is rarely the case.

And yet in spite of these tremendous difficulties, there are some estimates out there. The graph below is from a paper published by the World Bank in 2001 by Lykke Andersen. It's one of the few cross-country studies on Latin America out there.
Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Peru come out on top with the highest estimated social mobility, while Guatemala, Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador are at the bottom. Of course, these numbers are based on urban surveys and as such don't capture the whole reality of the countries in question, but they're nevertheless useful for broad comparisons.

But how does Latin America stack up against developed countries and in particular the US? This second graph below combines more recent and country specific estimates from Chile, Brazil and Peru with estimates for some developed countries.
In this case Chile, the UK and the US exhibit comparable levels of social mobility, which is either very flattering for Chile or very, very unflattering for the US and UK, the supposed bastions of liberal democracy and economic opportunity. Of course, note how far off these countries are from the more civilized nordic countries or Canada for that matter.

But it is worth mentioning that these numbers aren't comparable at all to the social mobility index in the previous graph--pointing to the shortcomings of consistent estimates noted above. Also, as someone who's lived in Canada, the US and Chile, I find these results very hard to believe. While the gap between Canada and the US makes perfect sense, such a small gap between Chile and the US is rather hard to swallow given the intense social stratification and pervasive class mentality anyone who's spent any time in Chile could tell you about.

Now, I'm obviously not saying this to defend the US, which clearly has very serious social mobility issues, but if these numbers come close to reality then Chile has made some serious social progress.

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