Social Mobility: Part II

A study was recently released by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, and Emmanuel Saez from Harvard and U.C. Berkeley. This has been widely reported in the press as the Harvard Mobility Study. The results are not entirely radical, but they are important. The short story is that mobility (a change in class status from parent to child) varies greatly by region. They look at several aspects of social structure and family structure that influences mobility. They list them in the executive summary in this order (generally authors list them in what they see as the order of importance):

  1. Mobility varies by local tax rates (mobility increases as local tax rates and hence expenditures increase)
  2. Average income levels in an area were not related to mobility
  3. Upward mobility is lower for both whites and blacks in areas that have larger black populations
  4. They also found correlations between “income inequality, economic and racial residential
    segregation, measures of K12 school quality (such as test scores and high school dropout rates), social capital indices, and measures of family structure (such as the fraction of single parents in an area)”
  5. Then then mention that family structure (one vs. two parent families), in this group was particularly significant.

The most  interesting issue for me, is not what they found (although I do find it very interesting), but what was reported. I did a quick Google news search using the terms Harvard mobility study. Of the first ten news items, three have the single parent family issue in their headline and two more focus on this within their text. This means that half of the top ten hits emphasize this one result.

This certainly is an interesting outgrowth of the study, although not the most interesting one. However, since our society prefers to look to individualistic answers to difficult problems rather than focusing on the way the organization of the social system contributes, this is not surprising. It is much easier to argue that people ought to get married then it is to wade through the complexities of government programs, unequal school quality, segregation, and wealth differentials. The articles (and I have not read every article on this subject), also do not examine the structural reasons that single parent families have increased. It turns out that this is impacted by the social structure as well.

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