← return to In the Media

Pathways to social mobility

Published in 18/02/2021

There are many factors that offer a person the opportunity to progress in life, to be able to live in better conditions than that of their parents. Highlighted on this list, education has an undeniable impact as an engine of personal development. But it is not alone. The range of options goes through areas and initiatives so varied that it is difficult to identify them. There are the obvious ones and among them are: the best housing conditions, basic health programs, day care services and even child nutrition. And there are probably many others out there, that have gone unnoticed. The good news is that this search already mobilizes institutions around the world to study, through the best scientific method, factors and interactions capable of promoting social mobility.

Experiments in this field of social sciences seek to understand what has really made a difference in people’s lives. There are remarkably interesting conclusions. This is the case of the project carried out in the second half of the 1980s, designed and implemented by Sally Grantham-McGregor, professor emeritus at University College London, and which subsidized the creation of the Reach Up Program(https://www.reachupandlearn.com/).

Working with children between 9 and 24 months of age in Kingston, Jamaica, the intervention called Jamaica Supplementation and Stimulation Study or Jamaica Study involved 213 participants divided into four groups, all made up of children with delayed physical development – which is usually correlated with malnutrition. One group received psychosocial stimulation and the other, supplementary nutrition. A third included children who were given both treatments. For the last, the control group, no intervention was offered. The Jamaican study also covered a comparison group, with children who did not suffer from developmental delay and lived in the same neighborhood as the group under treatment. The work on the first group (that of psychosocial stimulation) consisted of weekly visits by community health workers and a direct approach to their parents, who were encouraged and taught to interact with the child using a specific protocol designed to develop cognitive and psychosocial skills. Over two years, these professionals taught parenting skills.

Family in Kingston: Jamaican capital was the scene of a revealing study on the impact of
psychosocial stimuli in early childhood on low-income individuals.

Two decades later, economist Paul Gertler (University of California Berkeley) led a series of interviews with individuals who had participated in the project in the 1980s. In this reunion, it was found that children from families visited by community health workers in the past and subjected to psychosocial stimulation became adults with income gains about 25% higher than the average of the control group, which participated in the study without receiving any type of treatment – a gain that equated them to the comparison group of children without physical developmental delay at the time of the experiment.

In the same evaluation, those submitted to psychosocial stimulation in childhood showed better school performance and had less participation in violent crimes. The achievements obtained by these children were superior to those of the members of the group that had access only to supplementary nutrition. Discoveries like this are precious, especially when they serve as input to produce consistent public policies. They are scientific evidence and, therefore, less subject to errors than government actions based simply on common sense or only on the personal beliefs of the representatives.

In Brazil, the learning brought by the Jamaican program has inspired the creation of the Child Development Support Program – PADIN, developed in Ceará by the state government since 2014. The implementation had a rigorous planning process, which included a pilot project in extremely poor areas and randomization prior to the intervention, whose evaluation has been led by economist Flávio Cunha, from Texas Policy Lab.

Notable among the most innovative studies in the field of social mobility, Moving to Opportunity (MTO) is a housing relocation program funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), an agency of the American federal government, in partnership with local governments. Through the granting of rental vouchers, preceded by intensive preparatory research and counseling of the enrolled, 4,600 families with children have moved their homes from areas of extreme precariousness to neighborhoods with more structure and economic conditions. MTO participating families were recruited between 1994 and 1998 in five cities: Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York.

Housing development in Los Angeles: one of the cities in the United States included in the Moving to Opportunity program.

In 2002, and afterwards, from 2008 to 2010, enrolled families underwent interviews to evaluate the program. The analyses, focused on the effects of MTO on adults and children, indicate a decrease in cases of racial segregation. In the universe of children who were under 13 when their families changed addresses, the effects are positive and palpable. According to a scientific article published in the American Economic Review by researchers Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren and Lawrence F. Katz in 2015, children transferred to better neighborhoods had better school performance, higher income than their parents and live in better neighborhoods themselves when adults. Among the adults, the most recent interviews (covering a broader period of activity of the MTO) point to subtle advances in general health, with a decrease in the incidence of depression, morbid obesity, and diabetes. The influence of Moving to Opportunity proved to be practically nil in improving the economic livelihood of the adults participating in the project. A fact that certainly imposes inquiries into many cities in Brazil, overtaken by slums, as to which paths to follow.

Two successful experiences using CBT were the Becoming a Man (BAM) programs, implemented for the first time in Chicago, USA, and the After-School Clubs, in El Salvador. BAM showed results of between 28% and 35% in the reduction of criminal recidivism, from 45% to 50% in the reduction of violent crimes and an increase of 12% to 19% in high school graduation rates. In the case of the program implemented in El Salvador, the results point to a reduction in misconduct records of young people, a drop of 23% in school absenteeism and an increase in grades, effects driven by the changes observed in the most violent students at the beginning of the intervention.

The Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), implemented in Boston and New York, proved successful in increasing the probability of completing high school (6.1 percentage points), reducing dropout rates (2.6 percentage points) and decreasing chronic school absenteeism (27%), results correlated with: increased aspiration to go to college, gain in work habits and improvement in social skills. However, such programs do not appear to have an effect on employability.

Public social mobility policies involve education, and this fact can never be overstated. They can also take the path of psychosocial stimulation, adopted in Jamaica, or even the housing change offered in the American government’s Moving to Opportunity project. Or work on the non-cognitive skills of young people, such as Becoming a Man, After-School Clubs or Summer Jobs. There are other possible directions, but the focus is one and the same. “The inequality of human capital stems, in large part, from the inequality of investment in human capital”, as Flávio Cunha, professor of Economics at Rice University, summed up in a lecture at Fundação Getúlio Vargas. It is essential for development to ensure that individuals from lower income strata be given the chance to migrate to a different position in society – and that chance, in general, is denied by the absence or poor execution of public policies.

There are examples all over the world of initiatives aimed at the study and promotion of social mobility, based on the scientific method, and supported by research. This is the experience that IMDS proposes to disseminate in Brazil – the use of evidence throughout the public policy cycle. Diagnose the problem – what is blocking mobility and how; design the best intervention for each context (even when inspired by other experiences, as in the case of PADIN); put it into practice, whilst analyzing possible risks and threats and planning how to deal with them; schedule the monitoring of indicators that would allow the evolution of results to be monitored, and creating conditions for an impact assessment that would affirm whether or not the intervention is effective; and, finally, carrying out a cost analysis, aiming to answer if the program produces results that compensate the costs. All of this at a repeated pace, creating a virtuous culture of using the scientific method to make effective and efficient public policies that promote equal opportunities.

Investing in education is the most obvious way, but in Brazil and elsewhere, there are projects and significant results in several other areas