The ‘glass floor’: an old and new driver of inequality

The Age’s Good Weekend magazine almost always offers interesting longer articles for relaxed weekend enjoyment. But in a recent edition (3 February 2018) there was a disturbing aspect to the publication. The front cover of the magazine highlighted the feature story about property developer Michael Buxton and his art collection with the the tropes: MAKE MONEY. COLLECT ART. BUILD MUSEUM. And yes, it is an interesting article at many levels.

Turn over to the back cover of the magazine and there is a photo of a dishevelled but very sweet little girl and the headline – YOU COULD LOOK AWAY – But then nothing will ever change. It is a Smith Family Charity advertisement soliciting donations to a sponsorship program  for children to assist with the costs of education…the school essentials, tools and extra out-of-school support she needs to fit in and catch up…Dena is desperately waiting. It is essentially an old-world charity appeal to help people, especially sweet-looking children, who we feel sorry for.

It came to my attention just as I am reading inequality scholar, Branko Milanovic’s  2011 book of essays, The Haves and the Have-Nots. The book constitutes an extraordinary panoply of insights on the nature and experience of inequality derived from diverse fields including history, economics, literature, biography and philosophy . Each essay is thought provoking in its way and of course together they form the ground for Milanovic’s mighty, post-Piketty, 2015 treatise Global Inequality.

One insight that particularly struck a chord with me, was a commentary about how ‘poverty’ is viewed as opposed to ‘inequality’ in his essay Two Students of Inequality. In the essay, Milanovic recites an incident when he was told by the head of a prestigious think tank in Washington DC, they would finance anything (presumably research) to do with poverty alleviation, but inequality was an altogether different matter.  Milanovic explains the logic of this as follows:

Why? Because “my” concern with the poverty of some people actually projects me in a very nice, warm glow: I am ready to use my money to help them. Charity is a good thing: a lot of egos are boosted by it and many ethical points earned even when only tiny amounts are given to the poor . But inequality is different: Every mention of it raises in fact the issue of the appropriateness or legitimacy of my income…. Thus it is better to pass inequality in silence. (p. 84).

Milanovic also recounts what a British historian, David Kynaston observes, Everyone is happy talking about eliminating poverty, because this looks like an admirable and ethical response to the problem of inequality, while leaving the structures of power untouched. (p. 85).

In Australia, as elsewhere in the world, there are on-going problems of poverty whereby too many people simply do not have sufficient income to afford the basics to get by – as the Smith Family advertisement in the Good Weekend magazine highlights.. The Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) last report on poverty shows that around 13% or 3 million,(731,000 children) Australians live in poverty defined as 50% of median income. The causes are multiple including inadequate social security, low wages, disability and caring, low housing affordability, unemployment and underemployment.

The juxtaposition of the Good Weekend’s back cover story of the poor little girl who needs your help, and the front cover story of Michael Buxton and his fabulous art collection certainly brings into focus the great divide in this society. It is a divide that a sponsorship program for poor Australian children in school is highly unlikely to fix. The Smith Family implores us in the advert: Today you can be the sponsor who gives Dena (the little girl) the chance to change her own life. Regrettably, this is unlikely to be how Dena’s life plays out for a range of reasons. And Michael Buxton’s story, as related in the article, tells us why.

While Buxton’s story is not exactly a ‘rags to riches’ one, it certainly has overtones of the the story of the ‘self-made’ man.  But this in fact not the case. As a child, he lived in one of Melbourne’s prestigious suburbs, went to an elite school, and his father was a real estate agent. He didn’t do well at school so he went straight into the family business rather than going to university. And from the family business he went on, in partnership, to start his own property development business. Apparently there were some downturns such as the recession of the early 1970s which took its toll on the family fortune but he was eventually able to move onwards and upwards, buying a $5000 painting by Jeffrey Smart in 1976 when he was about 30 – not a bad effort.

The story of Buxton’s early years is essentially one about the ‘glass floor’. This is the inverse of the idea of the ‘glass ceiling’ which for a long time has conveyed the idea that there is an invisible barrier that prevents women from progressing to the upper echelons in occupational hierarchies.

The ‘glass floor’ has a broader application in that it is not gender defined but it carries the idea that if you come from a certain socio-economic background it is unlikely you are going to crash down through some invisible barrier if things do not go well for you. Rather the barrier will keep you safely confined to your family’s social and economic position. Indeed, while Buxton wasn’t too good at school, which might have pushed someone else into a low-end occupation or unemployment, there was a sturdy family business and its large network of connections to catch him. Yes, he did have to sweep the floors and make the tea for a while but it didn’t last too long before he could branch out confidently on his own and move steadily upward.

There is a strong view in the inequality literature that the ‘glass floor’ will be a defining feature of the 21st century. This basically accords with the views of both Thomas Piketty and Branko Milanovic  that opportunity – and wealth in the 21st century, will essentially be inherited and that it will be much harder for children from lower socio-economic groups to achieve upward social and economic mobility.

There are studies which show that this process is in train now both in the USA and the UK. And with present levels of poverty and inequality in Australia, we are sure not to be far behind. A particularly troubling aspect of these studies is that the dynamics of the future will be such that a not-so-smart kid from a well-off background will almost always do better than a bright kid from a poor background. The research emphasises the ways that well -off parents compensate for any deficits in achievement that a child might have through additional resourcing in education but also that there are simply unexplained advantages that accrue to children from higher income families – the Buxton story gives us some idea of what these are.

So what can we say about the dynamics of the life of Dena, the little girl in the Smith Family advert. Clearly the Smith Family has identified that there is a ‘market’ for donations associated with poor children’s education. The advert is cleverly designed and worded. It is confronting. However, regardless of the sponsorship, Dena will be facing significant hurdles without the kind of ‘glass floor’ advantages that accrue to people like Michael Buxton from well-off families.*

The idea that Dena will have the chance to change her own life, with your sponsorship, as claimed in the advert, is really so much nonsense. Dena’s life course is largely determined by her family background and its socio-economic position. I particularly disliked the claim that she, alone, will be the agent of her life course. Regardless of a donor’s educational sponsorship, she will continue to live with her struggling family coping with significant social and economic  stressors that could include unemployment, disability, domestic violence and poverty. She will continue to be greatly affected by these circumstances regardless of a bit of cash in the cap to help buy a uniform, some text books, and some out of school support.*

What she needs to change her life and her life course, is that her family have a good income, a stable job, and secure, affordable housing. Her family life should include regular holidays to nice locations (no shortage of these around Australia) and opportunities for her to participate in all the normal in-school and out-of-school activities like sports, singing, theatre and play groups. Oh yes, and she will need the ‘glass floor’ of opportunities just in case she needs a bit of a lift if things don’t quite work out on the school front as hoped… just as Michael Buxton had. Even so, she is a girl so things may not go just as they did with him, with gender inequality still so embedded.

I am increasingly exasperated by the poverty story that implies that we just need to tip in a bit of cash here and there to solve chronic social injustice of the type experienced by children such as Dena. We need a full blown inequality story that takes in all the ways that such children are in fact cheated out of their life opportunities because of significant distortions in so many areas of contemporary capitalism that desperately need remedy including the massive tax evasions that Gabriel Zucman has documented.

These distortions and tax evasions mean that there is a deficit in public funding to finance improvements in the social safety net, significant increases in funding for education, and overall increases in wages and job opportunities for low income families. At this stage of the evolution of this society, there should not be any financial issues for families in regards to their children’s education.

The journalist who wrote the story about Michael Buxton asked a tax adviser about the gifting of art works to the public domain. Apparently, there is a Cultural Gifts Program which exempts the donor from capital gains tax… and If the collection cost him less than (the market value) to buy, he might even make a profit. One thing’s for sure, Dena’s family will never have such a windfall.

*N.B. The Smith Family website proclaims the success of its sponsorship program and the difference it has made to many lives. I hope indeed that is the case. But however successful it is, it can only ever be available at the margins of society for a limited number of families and children. There would not be a need for such a program at all, if there was sufficient opportunity pathways for everyone and all families. I would be interested to see a broad, evidence based, follow up study of the outcomes for all the children who receive the sponsorship.

There is also a fundamental problem with the idea that a sprinkle of cash will make a difference to the lives of children like Dena. This is described in the book by Swedish academic Per Molander in The Anatomy of InequalityThe problem is that the little bit of extra help is effectively negligible in the face of the huge advantage that accrues to children from well-off families. This is the multiplier effect of the benefits in the lives of those well-off children – in fact it is a mathematical outcome. Importantly, the talent and hard work of the less well-off child will play a relatively small role in subverting this dynamic.

Post Script. 21 February –  An article published 20 February  in The Conversation UK Growing up in poverty weakens later health – even if you escape it raises many of the same issues. It emphasises the effects of various stressors, as I have done, on the ongoing well being and opportunity pathways for children. It clearly links the broader circumstances of a child’s upbringing – most notably that of her or his family – to the  child’s health status as an adult regardless of how well off that person may be in later life.

The article also draws attention to a number of supporting articles of the effects of childhood stressors:

The Environment of Poverty: Multiple Stressor Exposure, Psychophysiological Stress, and Socioemotional Adjustment

Chronic stress, salivary cortisol, and α-amylase in children with asthma and healthy children

Why do poor people behave poorly? Variation in adult health behaviours and psychosocial characteristics by stages of the socioeconomic lifecourse

And then there is a link to this insightful article about the old adage – What doesn’t kill you  makes you stronger.

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