The study also found that areas with less urban sprawl had higher intergenerational mobility, and where there was substantial racial and economic de facto segregation, mobility decreased. The strength of social networks -- as measured by participation in civic or religious groups, for example -- also correlated with mobility. "High upward mobility areas tend to have higher fractions of religious individuals and greater participation in local civic organizations," the study's authors write.
The study also found that there were only modest correlations between income upward mobility and local tax and government spending policies and that there was no correlation with local labor market conditions, rates of migration (including immigration) or access to higher education.
But the most important finding is one that most conservatives won't be surprised at and many liberals would rather ignore: "The fraction of children living in single-parent households is the strongest correlate of upward income mobility among all the variables we explored." The more single-parent households in the area the lower the mobility. But as with race, the correlation holds even for those who don't fit the category. Children from intact families experience lower mobility rates if they live in areas with large numbers of single-parent households.
The president has an opportunity in next week's State of the Union to address the issue of inequality in a meaningful way. Instead of simply blaming the rich for earning too large a share of national wealth and arguing that that wealth should be redistributed by the government through higher taxes and more social welfare spending, the president could exhibit some courage by addressing family structure directly.
If President Obama really cares about improving economic mobility, he could start by using his own political capital to promote marriage and encourage two-parent households.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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