Alas, the president didn't go there: The state of our unions

Article Highlights

  • if the nation wishes to get serious about rebuilding “ladders of opportunity into the middle class,” we must also work to rebuild the American family

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  • Of all the factors most predictive of economic mobility, one factor clearly stands out : family structure

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  • The do-nothing strategy would mean making peace with a permanent division between rich and poor when it comes to marriage,

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Alas, in his State of the Union address tonight, President Barack Obama did not go there. He did not engage one of the biggest issues blocking the mobility agenda he articulated: the divided state of our unions.

Obama's oversight is unfortunate because just last week Harvard economics professor Raj Chetty and his colleagues released a major new study detailing the biggest predictors of mobility in communities across America. They found that communities with high levels of civic engagement, high-quality schools, more racial integration, and more income equality have higher rates of economic mobility for poor children. But the strongest factor predicting mobility, as I noted recently in Slate, was 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 . . . it looks like a married village is more likely to raise the economic prospects of a poor child.

The bivariate figure below, taken from the Chetty et al. study, is illustrative:

So, if the nation wishes to get serious about - to quote from the president's address - rebuilding "ladders of opportunity into the middle class," we must also work to rebuild the American family. This will not be an easy task.

But the alternative strategy, doing nothing, is also not acceptable. The do-nothing strategy would mean making peace with a "​permanent division between rich and poor when it comes to the state of our unions,"​ as I recently wrote in USA Today.

"For anyone who wants the best for our children and country," I argued, "this kind of enduring family inequality is an unacceptable alternative. That's why Democrats and Republicans should forge a bipartisan agenda to bridge the nation'​s marriage divide and thereby help renew the American Dream."​​

- W. Bradford Wilcox is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow: @WilcoxNMP



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About the Author


W. Bradford
  • Bradford (Brad) Wilcox is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he directs The Home Economics Project. Inaugurated in fall of 2013, the research project explores the links between family structure and economic growth in 20 countries around the world — more specifically, how marriage and a strong family life foster free enterprise.

    Wilcox is also an associate professor in the department of sociology at the University of Virginia, where he directs the National Marriage Project. He is a fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University and has been a research fellow at Yale University, a research associate at Princeton University, and a Civitas Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is additionally the author of “When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America” and the coauthor, with Kathleen Kovner Kline, of “Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives.”

    Wilcox has a master’s degree and a doctorate in sociology from Princeton University. His bachelor’s degree in government is from the University of Virginia.

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