Why “Economic Immobility” Is The New “Income Inequality”

Five ladders leaning against a wall, one reaches the top

There’s no more vexing and persistent issue today than youth unemployment, particularly in America’s largest cities, places that propel the dueling forces of prosperity and poverty. Primary factors that tip the relative strength of those forces are access to affordable education and skills training, as well as credible pathways for young adults to earn meaningful income.

When prosperity stalls, the phrase ”income inequality” is often used to describe the problem of economic stratification and concentration of wealth that occurs as a result. This phrase, however, often evokes the wrong response when describing the issue. Indeed, income inequality is inherently a symptom and not the core problem itself.

The real problem is economic immobility, and the challenge before those of us in K-12 and higher education is to address that problem on the front end, before the immobility of affected individuals turns into a permanent stasis for too many in our society.

Despite our longing for the nostalgic myth of living the American dream premised on a willingness to work hard for it, we must face this harsh reality: not all individuals have either the social capital or a fair and equal shot of finding success in this country. They may have a mobile phone, but they are not mobile when it comes to the economy.

All too often, a person’s fate is largely predetermined by their zip code, familial ties, and inherited social capital and surroundings.  Too many are born into poverty and can’t find a way out. This fact isn’t news, but the way we talk about this issue needs to change in order to begin fixing it.

That’s why I favor reframing the issue of ‘income inequality’ through the lens ofeconomic immobility. If we shift the discussion to the problem of economic immobility, education and social capital skills are then brought to the forefront of an essential conversation, one in which we try to figure out how our nation can help every single American realize their full potential.

Factors contributing to economic immobility include the lack of bank access for low income households in terms of establishing credit, and the paucity of professional social relationships that provide access to connections, information, and often opportunity.

Economic immobility has many reverberating effects, including adding risk to the importance of reinvesting in our national sense of community.  Connections become fragile when people of different socioeconomic classes lack opportunities to connect as peers and collaborators. With fewer shared experiences, there is less sense of national community.  And without a national community, our collective identity and agency as a country begins to erode.

However, there is hope. Though the roadmap to success will be lengthy and complex, the path forward is profoundly important. We must begin to frame the issue as an urgent matter of economic mobility. We need to discuss how to provide those in the nation’s cities and hardest-hit communities with the social capital and education alternatives they need to thrive.

Fundamental and next generation models of education play an essential role in providing children and adults the opportunity they need to succeed throughout their lifetimes. Without it, the challenges of poverty are too hard to overcome.

School reform, adult literacy and career training, right sizing the cost of higher education, and more holistic public policy measures are needed in this area if we want to ensure every American is receiving a quality education at the moments in their life that align to the needs. While meaningful policies and legislation are being debated endlessly in Washington, other education solution providers can step up to fill the gaps and act as a safety net in the meantime.

By helping at-risk youth and adults to unlock their potential, these providers – we at Penn Foster included – can create new pathways and improvements to education access. Once they are supported on this journey, then these strivers can begin to develop the skills, values, and habits needed to help build their social capital, and ultimately, to find and advance on their stepping stones to success.

By shaking up the current rhetoric surrounding income inequality, and highlighting the crucial importance of social capital as the on-ramp to economic mobility, our nation can begin paving the way towards providing a landscape of equal opportunity for all Americans.




Frank Britt is the Chief Executive Officer of Penn Foster, the leading provider of ed-tech enabled workforce solutions for students and employers in training and selection of front-line workers, with more than 150,000 active students.

The GradsofLifeVoice Forbes team provides thought leadership, research and expert commentary on innovative talent pipelines and related issues such as the skills gap, income inequality, workforce diversity, and the business case for employment pathways. We seek to change employers’ perceptions of young adults with atypical resumes from social liabilities to economic assets. This post was originally featured here.


Education, Income Inequality,
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