9. Social mobility — specifically getting people out of poverty — is infinitely more important than income inequality.
Social mobility is the ability of an individual or family to improve (or lower) their economic status. The two main types of social mobility are intergenerational (i.e., a person is better off than their parents or grandparents) or intragenerational (i.e., income changes within a person or group’s lifetime). Researchers at Harvard University recently released a study of intergenerational social mobility within the United States which controlled for five factors: racial segregation, income inequality, school quality, social capital, and family structure.
Can you guess which factor makes the most difference for social mobility?
Family structure, specifically single parenthood.
[M]obility is signiﬁcantly lower in areas with weaker family structures, as measured e.g. by the fraction of single parents. As with race, parents’ marital status does not matter purely through its eﬀects at the individual level. Children of married parents also have higher rates of upward mobility in communities with fewer single parents. Interestingly, we ﬁnd no correlation between racial shares and upward mobility once we control for the fraction of single parents in an area.
When we decode the social science speak we find it’s communicating a startling finding: Children are less likely to move up the economic ladder if they come from a community with a larger percentage of single parents even if their own parents are married.
The researchers also found that the usual factors liberals blame for lack of social mobility (e.g., taxes, racial segregation, college tuition rates, amount of extreme wealth in a region) had little or no correlation.
What this means is that if we want to increase social mobility we have to find a way to reduce the level and impact of single parenthood. That’s no easy task since there is no “obvious” political solution (such as redistribution of wealth to “fix” income inequality).
But if we care about the future of America’s children we can start by acknowledging the connection: broken families lead to broken economic ladders.