When it comes to a land of opportunity for all, Canada trumps the USA

A new study shows large differences in the extent of educational inequality between four countries
James Emery, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
James Emery, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

In many developed countries, if a child is born into poverty, then he or she is likely to stay in poverty. This is a consequence of the low and stagnant social mobility that has plagued much of the industrialised world over the last 50 years. However, the picture is not the same in all developed countries.

As part of a new book, “Pathways to adulthood: How do social inequality, individual motivation, and social change matter”, my colleague John Jerrim and I set out to explore differences in the relationship between family background and young people’s outcomes across different countries.

In order to make fairer comparisons we focussed on developed English-speaking countries, specifically Australia, Canada, the UK, and the USA. Our findings tell an interesting story about inequality and how it differs between these countries with key similarities.

“This is clearly at odds with the notion that the USA is the land of opportunity, where individuals from humble origins can successfully pursue the American dream.”

We explore inequality at several points throughout young people’s lives, from pre-school differences in vocabulary and socio-emotional skills, through to differences in earnings once they enter the labour market. There are some striking differences.

Even before they start school, there are differences in children’s outcomes. In the USA, children with highly educated parents achieve vocabulary test scores typically associated with around 18 months more development than their peers from low parental education backgrounds. This is a significantly larger gap than in any of the three other countries considered. The difference is about 20% smaller in the UK, and 30% smaller in Australia. The gap in Canada is almost half the size of that found in the USA.

Skipping forwards in time, we also considered differences in average earnings by family background. The earnings gap between those whose parents have a high level of education and those whose parents have a low level of education is approximately 25 percent in Canada and Australia, compared to around 40 percent in the UK and almost 60 percent in the USA.

Overall, we find that the link between family background and later outcomes tends to be strongest in the USA and weakest in Canada, with Australia and the UK generally falling between the two. This is clearly at odds with the notion that the USA is the land of opportunity, where individuals from humble origins can successfully pursue the American dream.

Differences in the extent of educational inequality between these four countries with elements of shared heritage and culture suggests that there may be scope to narrow the particularly large inequalities currently observed in the USA and the UK. How might this be achieved? Other work, particularly in economics, has highlighted the high returns to investments made in the early years. Sociologists continue to stress the importance of interventions to assist disadvantaged youth through difficult transitions, such as into secondary school or into higher education.

In our view, the reality is that a combination of both approaches is needed. To really make a difference, a prolonged series of investments need to be made in children from disadvantaged backgrounds, starting at birth and continuing through to university graduation and possibly beyond.

This blog post draws on the chapter “The socio-economic gradient in educational attainment and labour market outcomes: A cross-national comparison” by Jake Anders and John Jerrim in the book “Pathways to adulthood: How do social inequality, individual motivation, and social change matter” published by UCL IOE Press on 4 October 2017.