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Exploring social mobility as a driver of inclusive growth

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Governments across the globe and in Australia spend billions every year on social measures and programs where the linkages and outcomes can be hard to see. Social mobility offers both a clarifying lens and a map to what works — and what doesn’t — to promote inclusive growth.

As governments across the world are challenged to tangibly demonstrate their value, there has been a push to find a broader strategic approach that links prosperity and inclusion.

Today we accept many deliberate government interventions into the economic system as beneficial or necessary for stability or growth, whether they come as infrastructure, incentives or regulatory advantages.

Similarly the public sector is now the primary manager and funding source of social and human services deployed by governments to provide a vital safety net and foster growth, cohesion and resilience among individual citizens, families and the community at large.

Social mobility links economic growth and inclusion

These measures are designed and delivered through a myriad of programs and managed through a maze of agencies, departments, clusters, central agencies, portfolios, and multiple ministers. Together they represent the engine room of government effort on behalf of its citizens.

But just how effective has this large-scale deployment of major civic capital been in driving prosperity and inclusion? We have seen Australia emerge as one of the wealthiest countries in the world per capita, but there remain deep pockets of seemingly entrenched poverty, disadvantage and dysfunctionality across our cities, regions and remote areas.

This comes as many OECD economies are engaged in vigorous public debate about how to achieve economic and social inclusion, provide opportunity for all, address entrenched disadvantage and enhance the ability of people and families to leave that disadvantage behind.

This discourse has put a sharp focus on the issue of social mobility as a strategic bridge between the economic and social mandates of government.

Making government actions count and last

Social mobility is a broad concept and refers to the likelihood that children born to parents from a certain income, wealth, location or social group change their status once they become adults. It is a central challenge that sits firmly with governments of all persuasions and goes to the heart of just how effective we as a nation or a state are at delivering for all our citizens.

It’s about the whole, rather than pinpoint examples. We have all heard great success stories of people breaking through disadvantage to become great achievers in business, community and government. But how well do we materially improve access to opportunity and outcomes for disadvantaged cohorts within the community?

In collaboration with the Victorian Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources, The Mandarin is exploring these issues and asking how social mobility is best considered as a broad approach to achieving inclusive growth.

Throughout November we’ll be putting forward a series of in-depth articles written specifically for public sector leaders, executives and practitioners to provide a baseline of information, ahead of a seminar with senior Victorian officials, community groups, academics and public policy advisers.

How to create positive change: have your say

We of course welcome other professional and respectful contributions from within government, industry or the community. It’s a discussion we hope will be as vibrant and candid, as it is valuable.

We intend this to be an opening study of social mobility and hopefully encourage new and original whole-of-government thinking and innovative approaches to the challenge of driving greater inclusion and prosperity for all.

On the move: evidence to date

For those interested in reading into the topic, the UK Social Mobility Commission recently produced a report, Time for Change, that assesses government policies in Britain over the last 20 years to increase social mobility. It’s a frank and useful introductory read of the issue through a lifecycle lens. Notably, it finds that while there have been decided improvements, the picture is far from rosy, with public policy not as impactful as it should be, and it points to five underlying reasons.

An academic centre of excellence, the Life Course Centre, has been established at the University of Queensland and is working with academic partners across the country and from overseas to understand the principle causes or mechanisms underlying the transmission of social disadvantage.

It is providing linkages into related work with the federal Department of Social Services, like this recent Australian Institute of Family Studies report, Contexts of Disadvantage, which explores how best to improve the life chances of children who experience disadvantage at the family, neighbourhood and school level.

In the US, the work of Raj Chetty from Stanford University has focused attention on location and its role in entrenching disadvantage.

Next: Understanding the difference between social mobility and inequality

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