The great equaliser

Sep 23 2013, 03:15 IST
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SummaryEducation mobility has accelerated in the post-reform era; it’s time now to focus on policies that create opportunity

Has there been a shift in the public discourse over the past decade? The discourse, which previously centred on the struggle for survival, conditional on state benevolence, now seems to have coalesced around the role of the state in bridging the gap between rising aspirations and the realisation of these aspirations. By creating pathways to participate in the growth process, high growth had ushered in an unbridled sense of optimism about the future, unleashing the aspirations of millions. Couched in the language of rising aspirations is the idea of social mobility. This development marks a shift in public discourse, centring on the concept of equality of opportunity.

As opposed to the concept of equality of outcomes that focuses on the distribution of income or wealth in a society, equality of opportunity implies that every individual has roughly equal opportunity to participate in society’s institutions such as the labour market—a concept closely linked to the idea of (intergenerational) social mobility. Intergenerational mobility, examined through the lens of education, occupation, income and wealth, serves as a unique indicator of equality of opportunity. By estimating intergenerational mobility, what we are examining is the relationship between the socio-economic status of parents and the socio-economic outcomes of the adult child. If parental outcomes have a significant impact on the education, occupation and income of their children, then children from poor households have a low probability of escaping from poverty and rising up the income distribution. In such societies who your parents are is indeed an important determinant of your fate. On the other hand, in highly mobile societies, the link between parental outcomes and the opportunities available to children is weak. In such societies, an individual’s education, occupation or income depends more on factors within his control than factors beyond his control.

While rags to riches stories are popular, the idea that one’s life chances are determined largely at birth is still widely held in India. The organisation of society on the basis of caste, which an individual inherits at birth, has often been viewed as the biggest impediment to social mobility. That the son of an illiterate, low caste, poor labourer is destined to live in poverty, leads many to characterise India as a highly immobile society with high levels of inequality of opportunity. Furthermore, the rise in inequality of outcome as measured by the Gini coefficient in the post liberalisation era, has led many to

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