why has it broken and how to fix it?


In France, inequalities between generations are transmitted more markedly than in a large number of other European countries. In other words, individuals have difficulty moving up the social ladder and have difficulty getting rid of their parents’ socioeconomic heritage. In this regard, education can play a key role in repairing the social ladder. Decryption.

Inequalities, redistribution and economic mobility in France

Inequalities in living standards, lower in France than in the European average

The Gini index makes it possible to take into account the level of inequality for a variable (income, wage, standard of living, etc.) and for a given population. It varies between 0 and 1, the value 0 corresponds to perfect equality and the value 1 to extreme inequality.

In 2019, when inequalities in living standards were measured, it was 0.293 points in France, according to INSEE, a pretty good situation compared to other European countries such as Germany (0.344 points) or Spain (0.321). France is slightly more egalitarian than the European average estimated at 0.302.

France’s social model based on solidarity through the redistribution mechanism contributes to inequality not increasing in the country, and has remained stabilized between 0.28 and 0.30 since the late 1990s, the break period of 2010-2012 aside.

The lack of economic mobility

But among the OECD countries, France is one of those where economic mobility is lowest, ie. where children’s income levels continue to be strongly correlated with those of their parents.

The conclusions of an OECD report on the subject from June 2018 are clear: In France, but also in Germany, it would take six generations or 180 years for a descendant of a family at the bottom of the income scale (the lowest 10%) to rise to intermediate level. On average in 24 OECD countries, five generations would be needed. It is at the bottom and at the top of the social ladder that there is the least mobility.

“Redistribution supports the standard of living of the poorest households, but does not correct the differences in the middle of the distribution,” sums up Laurence Boone, chief economist at the OECD, and Antoine Goujard, Office France, OECD’s economics department, in this article.

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Transfer of human capital from parents

So why do inequalities tend to reproduce themselves, especially in France? To understand this, we must take a detour through the theory of human capital and its transference. Human capital is defined by the OECD as “the set of knowledge, qualifications, skills and individual characteristics that facilitate the creation of personal, social and economic well-being”. In short, it is all social and cultural skills: knowledge, level of education, but also behaviors, interaction skills, “soft skills” … In addition to social and economic capital, it is this capital that largely dictates the individual’s chances of reaching high levels. on the social and economic ladder.

However, several researchers have shown that this set of knowledge and know-how is transferred in a very unequal way depending on the social background, depending on the decisions that the parents make regarding the expenses and investments in their children’s education,

The economic constraints of less affluent households thus limit investment in education, cultural capital and social skills. “More educated parents, who are also likely to be richer, are more likely to invest in their children than less educated parents,” explains a World Bank report. Among the poorest, children do not have access to private education, less money is invested in cultural activities …

In other words, the social position of the parents influences the fate of an individual. We can take the example of the level of education: only 17% of children of poorly qualified parents (average 12% in the OECD) go on to higher education compared to more than 60% of children of parents who have studied in superior. As the level of education largely conditions access to the highest paid jobs, this means that disadvantaged children are less likely to receive high wages in adulthood. In addition to human capital, the parental network of parents, geographical location, gender and other circumstances affect social mobility, again to the detriment of the most disadvantaged.

Action courses to promote equal opportunities

So how can we act to improve this social mobility and allow the most disadvantaged sections of the population to get out of poverty? To build a world where “every child, no matter where he or she lives, has an equal chance of becoming what he or she strives for,” as the President of the World Bank recently stated, schooling has a significant role to play. With appropriate education policies, schooling makes it possible to provide individuals with a basis of shared knowledge, regardless of their background, it accompanies the least privileged children, gives them access to a part of human capital that they do not have access to in their family. To move in this direction, the World Bank report outlines three important lines of action to improve economic mobility between the generations.

Invest in education and essential services for the population

Trading on education is a priority given its importance for the accumulation and transfer of human capital. This second report from the World Bank calls in particular for investment in improving education outcomes, which represents a way out of poverty. Students who master the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic will see more doors open to them, both in terms of education and employment opportunities.

In France, the difference in results between the best-off and the most disadvantaged students is higher than the OECD average, to such an extent that France is one of the most unequal countries with Luxembourg, Israel and Hungary, as shown by the Pisa survey ( International Program for Monitoring Student Achievement), which measured the performance of fifteen-year-old students in 79 countries. It is this gap that explains the decline in the level of education of French students.

Working with teaching programs and methods, but also providing more human resources to the school (more teachers would, for example, make it possible to have smaller classes) are ways of correcting the weaknesses of the French school system and thus making academic success less depending on the family environment.

Other investments can be made in essential services such as health, services that a child must enjoy from an early age if we want to improve intergenerational mobility and strengthen human capital. Public policies play a crucial role in giving every child, regardless of their parents’ background, the same opportunities to fully express their potential. And it is also a way of promoting economic growth with fewer outcasts and limiting poverty.

The OECD points out that “countries that have already invested heavily in education or health generally show greater mobility”.

Prioritize the most disadvantaged population categories

While the amount of investment allocated partly determines the success of the implemented policy, the way in which they are allocated is crucial.

“In order to break the vicious circle of poverty, it is imperative to rely on local measures,then the regions down to the districts. The poor tend to live in the poorest areas, where schools are weak, infrastructure is dilapidated, services are poor and inaccessible and crime problems are greater than elsewhere – all factors that weigh on a child’s ability to learn, grow and evolve. » explained the World Bank.

But in France, there is a structural problem of resource allocation in education issues. The Court of Auditors had thus published a preliminary ruling emphasizing that the least favored colleges and colleges, those with high error rates, had less benefit from public funding than certain institutions. Basically, the money is poorly distributed and does not always reach those who need it most.

Encouraging young people’s hopes for a better future

However, the personal component of success should not be overlooked, as sociologist Marie Duru-Bellat explains. Thus, with a very deterministic discourse, people with modest backgrounds may have the feeling of being doomed to remain in precariousness and of no control over their future. They can also be caused to develop a certain anger or shame in relation to their origin.

But in order to improve social mobility, on the contrary, it is necessary to awaken in disadvantaged people a sense of hope, of confidence, which leads them to invest in their own success. To this end, the World Bank considers it necessary to integrate behavioral analysis into policies and programs. ” so that we can more effectively reach the survivors in the development process“. The aim is to focus on the influence of contextual factors (eg the social environment) in individuals’ behavior and decision-making. This approach to combating poverty and inequality through behavioral science helps to better identify the brakes on the individual side and thus fight the problem more effectively.

To talk to young people about the sensitive issue of social determinism, Marie Dulu-Bellat suggests remembering that averages are only averages and that they mask a part of reality. “Even though 47% of children with working-class backgrounds do not pass the matriculation exam, 53% do. So there is room: Social determinism is not everything, there are exceptions,” she explains. The challenge is not to fall into fatalism, but to awaken motivation among young people.And this motivation of course also involves a transformation of the system.It is then a good circle where a more effective social ladder motivates individuals to liberate and develop, which has many benefits for society as a whole.

In conclusion, there is an urgent need to jointly tackle the challenge of improving the social ladder by leveling inequalities, by focusing on more equitable education, by giving everyone access to better opportunities.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

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