We at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth and much of the economics blogosphere have given substantial attention to the recent work on mobility in the United States by Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathanial Hendren and University of California—Berkeley economists Emmanuel Saez and Patrick Kline. One of the study’s key findings is that there is strong, statistically significant relationship between the share of single mothers in an area and the gap in mobility between children from high- and low-income families (Chetty and his co-authors refer to this as a measure of relative mobility).
Brad Wilcox, University of Virginia sociologist and Director of the National Marriage Project, employs this finding to promote pro-marriage policies. His research on the issue is intriguing (though he bases his recommendations on regressions that suffer from multicollinearity, because all of the independent variables are highly correlated with each other, and thus his analysis is statistically questionable). His analysis may leave policymakers with the wrong message. When policymakers focus on marriage as the most important path to higher economic mobility, it allows them to ignore the pro-family policies that can help improve mobility. After looking at the data more deeply, I think they are drawing the wrong conclusions and should look at ways to support families of all types instead of pushing a specific family model.
My issue brief, “A Regional Look at Single Moms and Mobility,” indicates that the Pacific states of California, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington stand out for having relatively high rates of single mothers while also having relatively high mobility. (See map) These states tend to have more family-friendly laws like paid sick days so that parents can take care of sick children and they have relatively generous parental leave so that new parents can spend more time with their newborn children. This analysis is far from definitive, but it does imply that these kinds of pro-family policies can improve mobility in the absence of a high rate of two-parent households.