Family Structure and the Geography of Upward Mobility

by Reihan Salam

In summarizing the findings of “Where is the Land of Opportunity?: The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States,” an important new paper from economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, and Emmanuel Saez, Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, draws our attention to the role of family structure:

Of all the factors most predictive of economic mobility in America, one factor clearly stands out in their study: family structure. By their reckoning, when it comes to mobility, “the strongest and most robust predictor is the fraction of children with single parents.” They find that children raised in communities with high percentages of single mothers are significantly less likely to experience absolute and relative mobility. Moreover, “[c]hildren of married parents also have higher rates of upward mobility if they live in communities with fewer single parents.” In other words, as the figure below indicates, it looks like a married village is more likely to raise the economic prospects of a poor child.

What makes this finding particularly significant is that this is the first major study showing that rates of single parenthood at the community level are linked to children’s economic opportunities over the course of their lives. A lot of research—including new research from the Brookings Institution—has shown us that kids are more likely to climb the income ladder when they are raised by two, married parents. But this is the first study to show that lower-income kids from both single- and married-parent families are more likely to succeed if they hail from a community with lots of two-parent families.

Family structure isn’t the only strong predictor. Racial and economic segregation is also negatively correlated with absolute upward mobility, as are low levels of social capital. But as Wilcox notes, the family structure finding is interesting because of what it suggests about the spillovers associated with marital child-rearing: for example, it could be that adults in two-parent families are better able to devote themselves to the kind of activities that contribute to a community’s endowment of social capital. I know what you’re thinking: “You think, Reihan?” Let’s just say that it’s good to test our assumptions to the (limited) extent possible.

It’s worth reading Wilcox’s essay, and for that matter this blog, alongside Helen Rittelmayer’s essay on “Bloodless Moralism” in the new issue of First Things. You’ll see what I mean. (And yes, I’m trying to trick you into giving First Things money.)


The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.