What Is the Minimum Investment Needed to Achieve Social Mobility?

What Is the Minimum Investment Needed to Achieve Social Mobility? by Charles Hugh Smith. What is the minimum investment (in time, money and effort) needed to ensure one’s children have social mobility, i.e. a cultural/social passport to upper-middle class opportunities? The rewards are great — those in the top rungs of the social mobility ladder earn far more than the bottom 90%, and, as illustrated, their relative earnings have been increasing in recent decades.



Social mobility requires enough investment to live in proximity to those with the means to provide portals to opportunity, having access to those in the entrepreneurial/ managerial/ professional classes. Those living on “the wrong side of the tracks” (in impoverished neighborhoods) are already at an extreme disadvantage compared to those living in desirable neighborhoods.

In the past, the minimum requirements cost less:

Few young people can pay rent, auto expenses, food, health insurance and tuition/books with a part-time job today. … Employers were more willing to give a young person a chance, partly because of the social milieu and partly due to the abundance of entry-level jobs.

Today, connections matter more:

The real ticket to social success/mobility is having parents and grandparents who are Ivy League alumni, members of exclusive clubs, and otherwise well-connected to wealthy, powerful movers and shakers. We all know how this works in the real world: young (not so accomplished) law student exits law school and is immediately offered a paid internship by his father’s associate/fraternity pal, etc. If the firm posts an opening, it’s for PR purposes–the son of the insider already got the job. The golden lad will have to mess up big-time to be ejected from the inside track

What if you don’t have connections?

For those without an inside track, high social/cultural skills are an essential foundation. When students from under-privileged neighborhoods enter Ivy League schools, they report missing all the cultural references–to classical music, artists, inventors, writers, historians, etc.–that are background cultural knowledge for kids who attended prep school. Children who grow up in households with few books, news and cultural magazines, sketchbooks and pens/paints, music lessons, etc., are impoverished in ways that cannot be captured by standardized tests of math and language.

The value of cultural capital:

The value of this cultural capital is not just in understanding the references tossed around in circles of the over-educated; it’s also the foundation of self-confidence, of feeling the equal of anyone rather than feeling inferior.

This is the value of team sports and similar group activities; even shy children gain familiarity with group dynamics that are critical to navigating the higher rungs of social mobility.


Travel is of course a key signifier of upper-middle class status. One of the first things people will boast about (subtly or unsubtly) in the company of strangers is foreign travel. The significance is financial: foreign travel is costly and requires dedicated blocks of free time.

Setting aside the cost factor, travel is a form of experiential capital that is more than a bragging point. The impoverished rarely get beyond the borders of their impoverishment, while the children of the upper-middle class are always jetting about, either with the family or visiting family, or with groups or exchange programs.

Though we never traveled overseas at all, our family went camping, and this low-cost travel created many wonderful experiences and opportunities for practical training (starting a camp fire, setting up a tent, fishing, etc).


Those with lots of money have little need for creative solutions, while those with little money must seek ways to build cultural and social capital that cost very little. One theory holds that excellence requires both a superiority complex–the feeling of being able to bring something special to the table–and an inferiority complex–the feeling of needing to prove one’s abilities and value.