An upward mobility family plan

The Washington PostJanuary 30, 2014 

President Obama, in the vain hope of escaping the Obamacare cloud and of re-engaging his base, has decided to make economic mobility and inequality the focus of his second term. He got bad news last week in the form of a Harvard economic study.

The Washington Post reported: “Children growing up in America today are just as likely – no more, no less – to climb the economic ladder as children born more than a half-century ago.”

This analysis may contradict conventional liberal thinking, but it is not an outlier. (“Another leading voice on mobility issues, Manhattan Institute economist Scott Winship, said in an interview that he has found a similar trend in mobility.”)

And the American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis noted the Harvard study also “inconveniently” found that extreme inequality fueled by upper-class gains is uncorrelated with a lack of upward mobility for those at the lower end of the spectrum.

In fact, he continued, the strongest impediment to upward mobility is family structure, as the study explained: “ ‘The fraction of children living in single-parent households is the strongest correlate of upward income mobility' among all the variables the research team explored.”

It’s disillusioning to those who favor statism – even a sleeker, cheaper statism – to find out there is no real government program that is going to do for children what successful parents and functioning families do.

That doesn’t mean, however, the president doesn’t have a role to play. For starters, he is a role model who can extol the benefits of finishing school, finding a job to learn basic skills, getting married and having children (in that order).

And in his State of the Union address Tuesday, he can say something like this: It is not a matter of religion, but of social necessity, that we have to speak with one voice: Finish school first, and have children only after you’ve gotten enough education to support yourself and form a stable home with two parents.

We should figure out how to encourage these behaviors in our communities. Local businesses can sponsor a bonus or offer some sort of job for finishing high school in at-risk school districts. We need to be honest about the roots of poverty and encourage mobility by committing at all levels of society to promote behaviors that will help our fellow citizens attain the American dream.

Republicans should echo that message. They can also pledge to protect Americans from Obama administration policies that harm the most vulnerable: Repeal Obamacare and put in place an improved Medicaid program and a patient-centered health-care reform. Stop harassing localities with effective school choice programs. Reform drug laws to stress rehabilitation but don’t legalize drugs that entice the most vulnerable. Republicans can also vow to put forward pro-growth immigration reform that brings in (or keeps after graduation) the highly skilled people who are likely to start jobs and infuse the economy with innovation.

Unfortunately, I expect the president will trot out the usual ineffective and counterproductive measures (e.g. a minimum wage hike, higher taxes). Republicans, as a matter of policy and politics, need to do better than that.

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