This Is Why You’re Poor: You Come From a Long Line of Riff-Raff

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Do you ever sit on your sweat-soaked futon, wearing only your mustard-stained tighty whities, scratching your dandruff and wondering “Why my poor?” If you’re like most poor people, you probably have built up a long list of reasons for finding yourself now subsisting on Hardee’s and driving an uninsured 91 Chevy. Perhaps you blame your deadbeat father, or the unsupportive seventh grade teacher who saw your piss-poor math equations and promptly recommended you learn how to dig nice, straight ditches.

Well, Cletus, researchers have recently been studying the question of inter-generational economic mobility and found that the blame actually lies with your ancestors. As it turns out, if your great-great-great-great-grandfather had maybe gotten his shit together for five goddamn minutes instead of sexing sheep and drinking pig liquor all day, you might actually not have to steal your neighbor’s wi-fi in 2013.

This week’s issue of The Economist contains an article about a new body of research showing that your economic class level is largely determined by the class of your ancestors going back many generations. Gregory Clark, an economist at the University of California, Davis, is one such researcher who led a study looking at economic mobility across generations.

Mr Clark suggests that family history has large effects that persist for much greater spans of time. Fathers matter, but so do grandfathers and great-grandfathers. Indeed, it may take as long as 300-500 years for high- and low-status families to produce descendants with equal chances of being in various parts of the income spectrum.

Poor people are basically part of an inevitable five-century-long shoeless clusterfuck? That’s terrible! Luckily the article has only appeared in The Economist, so we don’t have to worry about them ever finding out.

But how does this Clark guy reach these assumptions? By looking at the surnames of Swedish lawyers.

Mr Clark confronts the lack of good data by gleaning information from rare surnames. You can tease mobility trends from surnames in two ways. One method relies on past links between certain names and high economic status. In a 2012 paper, for instance, Mr Clark examines prosperous Swedes. The unusual surnames of 17th-century aristocrats and the Latinised surnames (such as Linnaeus) adopted by highly educated 18th-century Swedes are both rare in the Swedish population as a whole. By tracking the overrepresentation of those names in elite positions, he is able to work out long-run mobility rates.

As late as 2011 aristocratic surnames appear among the ranks of lawyers, considered for this purpose a high-status position, at a frequency almost six times that of their occurrence in the population as a whole. Mr Clark reckons that even in famously mobile Sweden, some 70-80% of a family’s social status is transmitted from generation to generation across a span of centuries. Other economists use similar techniques to reveal comparable immobility in societies from 19th-century Spain to post-Qing-dynasty China. Inherited advantage is detectable for a very long time.

If you grew up around rich kids, you probably know at least half a dozen Wellington Ashebrooke IIIs who spent their high school and college years dicking around, wasting huge amounts of their parents money and getting arrested for rohypnol possession. Yet somehow despite all their mess-ups, in the end those people always end up being your needy, idiotic dipshit boss. It’s easy to hate these people but remember that science has an important lesson for us here:

It’s not their fault you have terrible genes.

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