Days before Mayor Ed Murray announced his plan to raise the Seattle minimum wage to $15 per hour, the New York Times ran an editorial entitled “Rags to Riches to Rags,” which described the considerable fluidity and mobility in affluence in this country. The editorial said that 12 percent of the population will be in the top 1 percent of income distribution for at least one year and 39 percent will spend a year in the top 5 percent.
At first glance, the data creates hope that a higher minimum wage for low-wage earners will be a stepping stone to greater social mobility. In fact, the data might lead one to question whether the purported rigidity of the class hierarchy in the United States is overstated. Unfortunately, it’s not. Evidence of income mobility is not evidence of class mobility. In fact, income may be the weakest class indicator there is. Someone’s income can change dramatically throughout a lifetime, however, the wealth and cultural capital that are reproduced through generations largely determine relative socioeconomic rank.
Unlike income, wealth is passed down and gives people a huge leg up. Wealth shows up in the form of home ownership, and it’s predominately middle- and upper-class families, mostly white, who own homes. Public policies as far back as the Homestead Act and continuing on through the Fair Housing Act and redlining practices have seen to that. Wealth is also passed down in stocks and bonds, which again are held disproportionately by white families in the middle class and above. In recent decades, the boom in the stock market and investment income has also far outpaced growth in wages. While efforts to raise the minimum wage are important and make a difference to people living at the margins, they won’t address the most significant drivers of economic inequality.
Cultural capital, a concept coined by the French sociologist Pierre Bordieu, refers to nonfinancial social assets that give people status and power, thereby enshrining them in relatively higher-class positions. The term is best employed in talking about education, with particular reference to the merits of a four-year college education. My own education at a prestigious liberal arts institution instilled a sense that all is possible in life, taught me how to navigate systems of power and facilitated a network of social connections that are at least as important as the wealth passed down to me by my parents. I was reminded of this two weeks ago when I toured a number of liberal arts colleges on the East Coast with my 17-year-old son, who is a junior at Garfield High School. Visiting campuses, I realized how his trajectory toward a four-year degree will reproduce for him many of the advantages I have enjoyed. If you’re like me and almost everyone you know has a college degree, it’s important to remember that 70 percent of adult Americans don’t. Escalating costs, the prospect of crippling student debt and the end of need-blind admissions at most schools keeps the four-year degree largely the province of the advantaged.
I think about the advantages my son and his peers have, and then I think about the thousands of low-wage workers in Seattle who will likely see their family income rise by more than 50 percent to $15/hour over the next three to seven years. Most of these earners don’t have college degrees or significant financial assets. A higher paycheck will no doubt improve their ability to survive and provide for their families, and for that we should celebrate.
But let’s just not pretend that it will address the long-term drivers of economic inequality and rigid class hierarchy in America.