There’s been much debate in the past few days about the government’s plans for increasing social mobility. And I think we can all agree that social mobility matters. Better a society in which everyone can reach their full potential than one in which the doors of opportunity are open to some and closed to others.
But it seems to me that governments can only do so much, while the rest depends on more intangible factors like culture and attitudes and the things that shape our horizons of aspiration.
My own parents, for example, weren’t well off, but my goodness, they wanted us, their four boys, to do better than they had done, and that was incredibly motivating. But you can’t legislate people into being good parents, and you can’t exactly tell children to choose their parents wisely.
Then there’s the saying, it’s not what you know but who you know. Which means that mobility depends on the social mixing between classes. But where do the classes mix nowadays? It seems to me that we’ve become more segregated as a society, not less.
There’s a suburb in London that was designed a century ago to provide housing for rich and poor alike, but today you have to be pretty affluent to afford even what used to be called an artisan’s cottage.
Today, culture is segregated by age, housing by income, and sometimes whole neighbourhoods by ethnicity, and the question is: what binds us together as a nation regardless of what we earn or can afford? What in our culture, with its worship of success, is going to motivate the better off to help the children of those with less?
That for me is the beauty of our houses of worship, among the few places left where young and old, rich and poor, meet on equal terms and are bound in a bond of collective responsibility. It’s the beauty of the biblical ethic with its commands to love the neighbour and the stranger and share your blessings with those in need.
In fact anyone who belongs to a religious community is likely to have a network of social contacts, people willing to help them and their families, that will give them life possibilities simply unavailable to those who aren’t part of a community.
What we need isn’t just government action but a widely shared ethic of altruism reminding us that the greatest success is to help others to succeed, and the greatest blessing is to bring blessing into the lives of others.