Social Mobility and Education

Unequal societies have less social mobility and lower scores in maths, reading and science.

Social Mobility

There is a very strong relationship between high levels of income inequality and low levels of social mobility. Children of highly paid individuals are more likely to be highly paid and children of low paid individuals are more likely to be low earners. Key research findings include:

  • Countries with higher levels of income inequality have lower levels of social mobility:1
Social Mobility and Inequality
  • Research indicates that the link between inequality and a lack of social mobility exists throughout a person’s life. Higher inequality is associated with lower social mobility when looking at both children and adults. Such links are stronger than the link between social mobility and poverty.2
  • Critics of this relationship have suggested that groups with bigger differences between them will always have lower rates of mobility, whether that is in groups of chess players with different skill levels or people in countries with different levels of inequality.3 However, this would still suggest that greater inequality means that there is lower social mobility.

Research indicates that the link between inequality and a lack of social mobility exists throughout a person’s life.


Education is often seen as a strong driver of social mobility. Social mobility may be reduced in more unequal countries because educational scores are on average lower in less equal countries and education improves incomes more for those at the bottom of the income spectrum than for those further up.


Research has found a correlation between low scores in maths and reading and inequality between countries and between US states,4 as well as a link between lower average science, maths and reading scores and inequality:5

Educational Scores Are Higher in More Equal Rich Countries

Criticism and Issues

Some research has failed to find a straightforward link between how equal a country is and how equally literacy scores are distributed throughout that country.6


The link between educational achievement and high aspiration is a key explanation for the association between low educational achievement and inequality. A further explanation suggests that the low levels of trust in unequal societies lead to poor quality social and family relationships which in turn damages learning.7

  1. (Corak 2012) ↩︎
  2. (Blanden 2009) ↩︎
  3. (Mankiw 2013) ↩︎
  4. (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009) ↩︎
  5. (Morrison 2012) ↩︎
  6. (OECD 2013) ↩︎
  7. (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009) ↩︎