Social Mobility and Preferences for Redistribution in Latin America
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Economía 8.1 (2007) 55-88

Social Mobility and Preferences for Redistribution in Latin America

This paper has two different but related parts. The first part presents an overview of the empirical evidence on intergenerational mobility levels in Latin America. This overview examines not only the objective indicators of intergenerational transmission, but also subjective opinions about both social mobility and social justice. The question of social mobility is extremely relevant in Latin America given the region's high levels of inequality. If inequality is moderate, investigating its causes may be superfluous, but when inequality is large, identifying its determinants acquires special importance. In unequal societies, more than anywhere else, social policy should be based on a detailed understanding of the root causes of inequality.

Interest in social mobility surpasses technical considerations, however. The second part of this paper reviews the relationship between social mobility and political preferences. The idea that perceptions on social mobility may affect political preferences, in general, and demands for redistribution, in particular, has been repeatedly discussed by social scientists and political commentators alike, starting with Alexis de Tocqueville.1 Tocqueville's intuition that redistribution is indirectly related to perspectives on mobility has recently been validated, both at the aggregate and the individual level.2 Most empirical research in this regard, [End Page 55] however, focuses on either developed economies or economies in transition. To my knowledge, this is one of the first studies to examine the correlates of political preferences in Latin America at the individual level—or, at the very least, one of the first systematic attempts to empirically investigate the correlation between Latin Americans' demands for redistribution and their mobility experiences.3

The results reported in the first part of this article show that intergenerational mobility levels are substantially lower in Latin America than in the United States. This fact is indicated not only by the previously published evidence (based on household surveys that include intergenerational data), but also by unpublished evidence first analyzed here (based on Latinobarómetro, an opinion survey carried out annually in seventeen Latin American countries). In urban areas, for example, the mean difference in schooling between children of parents without primary education and children of parents with completed higher education is six years in Latin America and only two years in the United States. Thus, if one compares a Latin American with educated parents with his or her American counterpart, the difference in years of education is minimal, but the difference becomes enormous when one compares the children of noneducated parents from Latin America and the United States.

Residents in Latin America are quite pessimistic when assessing their own mobility experiences. Almost half of those surveyed by the Latinobarómetro consider that their current socioeconomic status is the same as that of their parents. Only 20 percent consider their status higher, and the rest consider it lower. Paradoxically, respondents tend to be much more optimistic with respect to their children's possibilities for mobility: 55 percent think that the socioeconomic status of their children will be higher than their own, and only 9 percent believe the opposite. Individuals tend to be pessimistic about fairness in general. More than 70 percent of those surveyed consider that opportunities to overcome poverty are not equal for all and that success depends on connections. Over 60 percent believe poverty is unrelated to effort and ability, and more than 50 percent consider that hard work does not guarantee success. These percentages are much higher than those observed in the United States (where beliefs about equality of opportunity are widespread) and higher than those observed in Europe (where beliefs about equality of opportunity are somewhat pessimistic).4 [End Page 56]

Finally, the results of the second part of this paper show the existence of a systematic correlation between individual characteristics and political preferences. Demand for redistribution, for example, is higher among poor individuals, among those who did not move up the socioeconomic ladder, and among those who believe that poverty is caused by external circumstances. A...