England’s social mobility ‘cold spots’ suppress earnings potential

Bradford in West Yorkshire, Bolton in Lancashire and Thanet in Kent are among the areas of England where it is hardest to escape deprivation, according to research that shows such social mobility “cold spots” lie close to areas with much better opportunities across the country

A report by the independent Social Mobility Commission, based on research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies think-tank, found that depending on where they grew up, boys from disadvantaged families could be earning twice as much by their late 20s as those from similar backgrounds in less mobile areas.

Disadvantaged boys born in Bradford had median earnings of £9,500 by the age of 28, compared with median earnings of £19,700 for their peers in West Oxfordshire and £17,900 for those born in the London borough of Tower Hamlets.

The pay gap between sons from the richest and poorest families in the least mobile areas was also more than twice as big in the least mobile areas as in the most mobile, the report said.

Steven Cooper, the commission’s interim co-chair, said the data told “a story of deep unfairness, determined by where you grow up”; but that there was no clear divide between north and south, or between rural and urban areas, with “areas side by side with vastly different outcomes”.

Places with the lowest earnings for disadvantaged people include many of the largely northern “red wall” towns that switched allegiance from Labour to the Conservatives at the last election — including Rotherham, Wolverhampton and Wigan. But areas such as West Devon, Chiltern and the wealthy London borough of Kensington & Chelsea also emerged as social mobility cold spots.

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The IFS based its research on administrative data for state-educated boys born between 1996 and 1998 — the prevalence of part-time working made it harder to track girls. This means its findings reflect the fortunes of a cohort of millennials who entered the labour market just after the “great recession” of 2008 — and could point to future disparities in outcomes for the generation now starting working life in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

The researchers said that in areas with high social mobility, gaps in educational attainment could explain almost all the earnings gap seen between sons from the most and least deprived families. But in areas with the lowest mobility, up to a third of the pay gap was driven by other factors, making it far harder to escape a deprived background.

“Children’s opportunities in England are still defined by both the family they were born into and the area they grew up in,” said Laura van der Erve, a co-author of the report.

The social mobility cold spots were often areas with greater levels of deprivation, lower house prices, fewer good schools and fewer available professional jobs, the researchers found. The report suggested that in a difficult, post-recession labour market, disadvantaged young people may have been less able to move away, or use informal networks to find work.

“If family background is indeed more important when there are limited labour market opportunities, Covid-19 . . . might increase pay gaps between the most and least affluent families,” it said.

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