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What's in a name? Wealth and social mobility, study says

Wednesday, 30 Oct 2013 | 6:14 AM ET
Oxford University graduates
Tom Stoddart Archive | Hulton Archive | Getty Images
Oxford University graduates

Want to make more money and have a higher social standing? Well, in the U.K., if you're a Percy, Baskerville or Cholmondley, your luck's in. The rest of us have the same chance of climbing the social ladder as we had before the industrial revolution, according to a new study by economic historians in the U.K and U.S..

Research by the London School of Economics (LSE) published on Tuesday showed that despite a leveling of the social playing field thanks to education, family names have a direct impact on social mobility. In the U.K., there are several names stretching back almost a thousand years still dominating certain high salary careers.

Entitled "Surnames and Social Mobility," the study by LSE economic historian Dr Neil Cummins and Professor Gregory Clark from the University of California Davis researched the genealogical history of English families with rare surnames, first recorded in the Norman age (from 1066 onwards).

Using data provided by genealogy website Ancestry.com and studying the U.K. distribution of those surnames over the past 800 years, they found that social status, wealth, education and occupational status was highly heritable – even more so than one's height – and could be correlated to one's family name.

To measure the average social status of surnames, the academics focused on their frequency at two elite U.K. universities, Oxford and Cambridge (collectively known as "Oxbridge") which were also founded in the Norman age.

"Just take the names of the Normans who conquered England nearly 1,000 years ago. Surnames such as Baskerville, Darcy, Mandeville and Montgomery are still over-represented at Oxbridge and also among elite occupations such as medicine, law and politics," Dr Cummins said of the findings.

(Read more: Income inequality: Is it good for everyone?)

Other names in the top 10 "wealthy" list were Berkeley, Neville, Packenham and Percy while among the poorer surnames were Boorman, Cholmondley, Defoe, Goodhill, Ledwell, Rowthorn, Sidwells and Tonbridge.

Importantly for the study of social mobility, the name checks showed that social mobility in England is hardly better now than in pre-industrial times and had not been improved by mass publicly funded education and universal voting rights.

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"What is surprising is that between 1800 and 2011 there have been substantial institutional changes in England but no gain in rates of social mobility for society as a whole," Cummins added.

They also found that it takes at least half a millennium for the U.K.'s elite class to shake off their lineage and "converge with the average members of society" – at least 400 years slower than economists had earlier predicted, meaning that the rate of social mobility -- both up and down the social scale -- is far slower than expected.

The study comes at a time of widespread concern over social mobility in both developed and emerging market economies. The gap between rich and poor has been steadily growing particularly in the U.S.

The Congressional Budget Office reported in 2011 that between 1979 and 2007 the top 1 percent of households saw their income grow by 275 percent, while for the bottom 20 percent, income grew by just 20 percent. For the middle 60 percent of Americans, average incomes grew just under 40 percent.

(Read more: Is income inequality as American as apple pie?)

In the U.K., however, the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) showed this year that the income gap narrowed in the U.K. between 2011-2012.

The agency's data showed that while the richest fifth of U.K. households had seen their household income drop 6.8 percent since the start of the economic downturn in 2007-2008, the poorest fifth had seen their average income rise by 6.9 percent.

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