Research sparks lively discussion on economic mobility

Economic mobility, or the likelihood that people and families can move up the economic ladder, has received considerable attention recently. We highlighted the results of a Pew Center on the States report documenting trends in mobility last week, and others are commenting on and analyzing these trends as well.

The rate of economic mobility is closely related to inequality – the more economic and social resources an individual or family has, the more likely they are to move up the economic ladder.

Forthcoming research by Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School, indicates that growing inequality will continue to limit mobility, and Putnam says that class distinctions are better predictors of economic mobility than race. This research has spawned a number of recent articles and generated lively discussion.

Putnam spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival in late June. His comments are featured in a June 30 Atlantic article in which Putnam emphasizes the impact that social class and mobility have on access to opportunity. Putnam says that thinking of poverty as a problem determined by race is a misconception, and he instead points to education level as a more clear indication of access to mobility. Additionally, he notes that the social structure of families has changed over the last three decades. Putnam maintains that a child coming from a two-parent household in which both parents are college educated will hold a distinct advantage over a child from a one-parent, high-school-educated household, irrespective of race. Though he does not dismiss race as a factor, he emphasizes the growing importance of the class gap when considering poverty and mobility.

In a July 9 New York Times column, David Brooks examines some of Putnam's positions, highlighting the differences in opportunities available to children from families of varying income. Differences in money spent on children, time and attention devoted to them and children's participation in "enrichment activities" influence this opportunity gap, he notes. Brooks cites both social and political reasons for increasing inequality, specifically citing increased spending on health care and Social Security over child welfare and a shift in traditional social norms as contributing factors.

The New York Times also explored economic and mobility in an article that used the rise in single parenting as a measuring stick. In a July 14 article titled Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do,' Jason DeParle profiles two women from similar backgrounds, one of whom is financially stable and one who struggles to support her children. The primary factor cited for the women's disparate outcomes is their marital status. One woman, Jessica, dropped out of college when she became pregnant with her first child, did not marry the father and is now raising her three children on lean finances. Her counterpart, Chris, completed college, married and had children. Chris and her husband have a joint income of about $95,000 a year, Jessica brings home just under $25,000 annually. The more affluent and traditional family can afford the extracurricular and enrichment activities – such as Boy Scouts – that Putnam and Brooks identify as important, while the single mother must balance her finances carefully and cannot dedicate as much time or resources to extra opportunities for her children. The overall theme of the article is that the children of married, educated, and more affluent parents are better off than children of less educated and wealthy single parents.

Katha Pollitt, in a July 17 article in The Nation, challenges some of the points made in DeParle's article. Pollitt does not disagree with the notion that children who grow up in the household of economically stable, college-educated, married parents are more likely to succeed than children raised in an impoverished environment by a single parent with less education. However, she takes issue with the article's focus on marriage as a factor of primary importance. Pollitt points out that marriage does not inherently ensure a stable and nurturing environment for both parents and children.

While Brooks and those quoted in the New York Times, among others, might view the increase of single mothers as an example of the erosion of family values, Pollitt argues that those same values could actually be exacerbating the trend. She explores the possibility that socially maintained gender roles, such as staying with a partner who was not helping her provide for her family, could make the situation worse.

Similarly, while the simple math of two paychecks being better than one is cited in DeParle's article, Pollitt pushes back against the assumption that the presence of a spouse in the household will always result in increased income and opportunities for children. Pollitt suggests that in some cases, providing help for single parents and their children may provide better outcomes than a parent staying in a dysfunctional relationship. She ends her article by asserting we should focus on assisting single parents and their children without portraying marriage as a panacea.

– Cortney Green

Article posted on July 27, 2012