Would Equal Opportunity Mean More Mobility?

53 Pages Posted: 9 Aug 2005

See all articles by Christopher Jencks

Christopher Jencks

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

Laura Tach

Harvard University - Department of Sociology


Adult economic status is positively correlated with parental economic status in every society for which we have data, but no democratic society is entirely comfortable with this fact. As a result, all democratic societies have adopted policies aimed at reducing the effect of family background on life chances, and most left-of-center political parties think that governments should do even more. This paper makes two main arguments. First, equal opportunity does not imply eliminating all sources of economic resemblance between parents and children. Specifically, equal opportunity does not require that society eliminate the effects of all inherited differences in ability. Nor does it require that society prevent parents from transmitting different values to their children regarding the importance of economic success relative to other goals. Second, the size of the correlation between the economic status of parents and their children is not a good indicator of how close a society has come to equalizing opportunity. Measuring equality of opportunity requires data on why successful parents tend to have successful children. In particular, it requires data on the degree to which a society has minimized obstacles to economic success that we know how to alter, such as parental neglect and ineptitude, inequitable distribution of effective teachers, and labor market practices that favor the well-born.

Keywords: Education Policy, Ethics/Political Philosophy, Welfare / Health Care/ Social Policy

Suggested Citation

Jencks, Christopher and Tach, Laura, Would Equal Opportunity Mean More Mobility?. KSG Working Paper No. RWP05-037, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=779507 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.779507

Christopher Jencks (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-495-0546 (Phone)
617-496-9053 (Fax)

Laura Tach

Harvard University - Department of Sociology ( email )

33 Kirkland Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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