We're going to be hearing a lot about social mobility over the next 18 months as presidential candidates talk about how they worked their way up from humble circumstances. Scott Walker seems to have become a front-runner in this aspect of the campaign: a recent story by Thomas Edsall quotes Sean Trende, senior elections analyst at RealClearPolitics, referring to his "working-class background," which reminded me that I'd read a number of others that said something similar. Walker's father was a pastor, as most stories about him observe (his mother was a bookkeeper, according to the Wikipedia biography). The Census puts "clergy" among the "professional specialty occupations," along with physicians, lawyers, engineers, and physicians. Its NORC occupational prestige score is 68.96, which is a little below psychologist (69.39), but ahead of optometrist (67.16), and well ahead of skilled manual occupations like electrician, machinist, or plumber (45-50). Of course, there's a lot of variation within occupations, so I thought that maybe his father led a little storefront church. No, he was an American Baptist, which is a large denomination with a long history. He had been an assistant pastor of a large church in Colorado before being promoted to pastor of a church in Iowa and later Wisconsin.
Walker's family was middle-class by any reasonable standard. And when he left college, he took a job with the American Red Cross in either "finance and development" or "marketing and fundraising," (accounts differ). So why do pundits talk about his working-class background? My hypothesis is that the idea of the "white working class" has become mixed up with geography--the white working class is supposed to live in small cities and towns in the Midwest (basically from western Pennsylvania or West Virginia out to Wisconsin). It seems to be part of the confusion of "red state/blue state" with individual social position that Andrew Gelman has written about.
Moving to more general issues, it's often said that Americans accept inequality because we overestimate the chance of upward mobility, as in this article. I'm not convinced by that--although there's not a lot of evidence, what I've seen suggests that people are have reasonably accurate ideas. I'll write about the issue more in a subsequent post, but to start with here is a question that Gallup has asked since the 1990s: "Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with... the opportunity for a poor person in this country to get ahead by working hard?" The figure shows the percent saying they're satisfied (some asked them if they were very satisfied, somewhat satisfied, somewhat dissatisfied, or very dissatisfied, and for those I combined the first two).