The best predictor of whether or not a child born into poverty will be able to escape poverty is the number of single parents living in the community they grew up in, a new study by Harvard researchers finds. Other factors include class and racial segregation, income inequality, school quality and social capital.
Copious studies have long shown that marriage helps families leave and stay out of poverty. What is most interesting, though, about the new study by Harvard economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren and Patrick Kline, and Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez is that it is a community-level analysis.
This means that poor children who live in communities with a large proportion of single parents are more likely to remain poor even when they are raised by their married mother and father. Or, another way of saying the same thing, poor children who are raised by a single parent but live in a community where most children are raised by both parents are more likely to escape poverty.
There were three other community factors that strongly predicted upward economic mobility: class and racial segregation, school quality and social capital. Poor children (of all races) were more likely to escape poverty in communities that were less divided along class and race lines, had less income inequality, had high-quality schools and had high levels of civic involvement. (Related to class and race segregation, communities with more urban sprawl also had less upward mobility.)
When controlling for all factors, though, family structure was the strongest predictor of upward economic mobility.
The researchers point out that their study shows correlations but does not establish causation. The mechanism that is helping poor children who live in communities with few single parents escape poverty is still unknown. There could be some additional factors, for instance, that the researchers did not measure that both encourage strong marriage and aid economic mobility.
The working paper, "Where is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States," was posted online this month.
The study lends support to liberal views about the importance of economic inequality and to social conservatives views about the importance of marriage. President Barack Obama has called economic inequality the most important issue of our time and Democrats have made it a theme for the upcoming 2014 elections.
There is an interesting addition, though, to the study's findings about income inequality. While income inequality was a statistically significant factor when using the Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality across all income groups, the study did not find a statistically significant difference when looking at the share of income held by the top one percent.
The researchers suggest that might be because factors that make it more difficult to rise from the lower to the middle class may be more important than factors that make it difficult to rise from the middle to upper class.
The research was part of The Equality of Opportunity Project. More information can be found on its website, www.equality-of-opportunity.org.