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In our opinion: Stable families are the key to overcoming income inequality

Published: Thursday, May 8 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Concern about income inequality and about rising percentage of children born outside of marriage are two problems facing our nation. A growing school of experts are beginning to argue convincingly that these two problems are one and the same.

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Concern about income inequality, and about the rising percentage of children born outside of marriage are two significant problems facing our nation. A growing school of experts — whether from the disciplines of economics or of family studies — are beginning to argue convincingly that these two problems are really one and the same.

For all of its statistical shortcuts, the French economist Thomas Piketty’s best-selling book “Capital in the 21st Century” is stirring debate about whether wealth and inheritance inevitably outpaces economy growth, enhancing a general trend toward greater inequality.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, known for his book “Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” has highlighted how the lack of intact families is deeply intertwined with the problem of income and wealth disparity. This is so because intact families are better adept at making the efforts toward long-term investment that will benefit their children’s families, if not their own.

Haidt argues that progressives seeking to improve income equality should ally with conservatives promoting marriage. And those seeking more stability and opportunity for children should find common cause in measures to increase access education, entry-level jobs and public institutions and infrastructure.

In this regard, Salt Lake City may well be Exhibit A for this proposition that addressing and strengthening families results in lower rates of income inequality.

For the second time in two years, the Equality of Opportunity Project at Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley released data ranking Salt Lake City first in promoting absolute economic mobility for lower-income children among the nation’s 100 largest cities.

Salt Lake actually improved its mobility score from data released in July 2013 to the next iteration of data in January 2014; the Harvard-Berkeley study found that the odds of moving from the bottom fifth to the top fifth of economic attainment was 10.8 percent.

According to the scholars at Harvard and Berkeley, “some of the strongest predictors of upward mobility are correlates of social capital and family structure. For instance, high upward mobility areas tended to have higher fractions of religious individuals and fewer children raised by single parents. Each of these correlations remained strong even after controlling for measures of tax expenditures. Likewise, local tax policies remain correlated with mobility after controlling for these other factors.”

Analyzing the results of Harvard-Berkeley research, University of Virginia family studies expert W. Bradford Wilcox wrote, “the most powerful (negative) correlate of such mobility was the share of single moms in a region. This means that children were most likely to realize the American dream when they came from regions — like the Salt Lake City area — with comparatively strong families.”

If the American Dream still exists, it is to believe that we can improve our circumstances — that merit matters, that talent can be cultivated and that hard work brings one to greater prosperity. The twin perils of declining relative income equality and broken families are often linked with each other in a downward spiral.

Commentators focusing on the problems of income inequality raised by Piketty would do well to consult the work of Haidt, the Harvard-Berkeley study, and Wilcox.

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