Poor children have 10% chance of making it to the top?

~by: Leong Sze Hian~

I refer to the article “Mobility in S’pore ‘higher than previously thought'” (Today, Jan 13). It states:

Having poor or less-educated fathers does not necessarily mean their sons will fare similarly, according to a study by a Ministry of Finance economist.
Using the income records of about 39,500 father-son pairs from the Department of Statistics, the study has found inter-generational mobility in incomes and educational attainment to be “moderate to high”, and higher than levels in the United States.
A 1992 US study found a correlation score of 0.4 and concluded inter-generational mobility there to be “relatively low”.

So, we are comparing a study done  in the US about 19 years ago, with the current study in Singapore. Has there been any newer studies in the US?
Why only highlight a comparison between the US and Singapore? As I understand, the US has one of the lowest  inter-generational mobility in the OECD countries (see HERE). Why not also highlight a more substantive  comparison between Singapore and the OECD countries which have high inter-generational mobility, like Denmark, Australia, Norway, etc?
According to the article on Today,  Ministry of Finance economist Yip Chun Seng noted that  “some evidence, though not strong, of lower mobility among the poor”; and I also quote the study (see HERE) which says, “Given a father in the 1st quintile, a son’s odds of reaching the second or higher quintiles are 66%; his odds of reaching the top quintile are 10 percent”. This means that a child whose father is in the bottom 20 per cent, has a 10 per cent chance of making it to the top 20 per cent.
Different conclusion a year ago?
In this connection, you may be interested to also read the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) reply “Singapore’s Meritocratic Education System Promotes Social Mobility” (Straits Times, Feb 23, 2011) to Ms Irene Y.H. Ng’s commentary on “Growing worry of social immobility” (Straits Times, Feb 16, 2011).
In her commentary Ms Irene Y H Ng wrote, “We found that Singapore‘s intergenerational mobility was similar to that of the United States, which is low compared with other developed countries”, to which the Ministry of Education replied, “studies undertaken by international experts and our own statistics indicate that students from disadvantaged homes or lower socio–economic groups are still able to move up in Singapore”, without clarifying if the intergenerational mobility was similar with the US.
More statistics on mobility?
In this connection, media reports (“School system ‘still best way to move up’”, “MPs speak for kids from poorer families” and “New chapter in the Singapore story” (Straits Times, Mar 8, 2011)) of proceedings in Parliament in March 2011, cited numerous pages of statistics to more or less dismiss MPs’ concerns that kids from poorer families were disadvantaged.
For example:

“How children from the bottom one-third by socio-economic background fare: One in two scores in the top two-thirds at PSLE”
“One in six scores in the top one-third at PSLE”

What we need to know for comparative purposes, is the percentage of richer kids who scores in the top two-thirds too.

“… one in five scores in the top 30% at O and A levels… One in five goes to university and polys”

What’s the data for richer kids?
Since the proportion of the entire population going to university and polytechnics has increased substantially, this clearly shows that poorer kids are worse off!

“More spent on primary and secondary/JC schools.  This means having significantly more and better teachers, and having more programmes to meet children’s specific needs”.

What has spending more money, which what most countries do, got to do with the argument whether poorer kids are disadvantaged?
Perhaps the most damning statistics that poorer kids are disadvantaged was the chart from the Ministry of Education (provided by the Straits Times), which showed that the percentage of Primary 1 pupils who lived in 1 to 3-room HDB flats and subsequently progressed to University and/or Polytechnic, has been declining since around 1986.
And according  to the articles “1 in 5 from poorer homes” (Straits Times, Nov 25, 2010 ) and “Parliament turns down NMPs’ calls to legislate pre-school education”  (Channel News Asia, Nov 25, 2010), the Minister of State for Education, Masagos Zulkifli told Parliament that there are pupils from the bottom one-third of families who make it to the top one-third of PSLE performers, and that children from these families on lower incomes and whose parents are less well educated form 20 per cent of such top scorers.
Does this mean that a child from a richer family has four times the chance compared to a poorer family, of being in the top one-third of PSLE scorers (80 divided by 20 per cent)?
Odds stacked against poorer children?
The selection criteria for scholarships, may also be skewed towards children from richer families, because of subjective criteria like extra-curricular and non-academic achievements and activities. Children from poorer families may not have the funds or time to participate in non-academic activities.

Read also Institute of Policy Studies’ ‘Inequality and the need for a new social compact‘.

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