I have no idea whether inequality increases intergenerational immobility. But I do know that lots of people would like to pin bad social trends on single motherhood, meaning — in their view — the bad decisions of people who already poor. And that has bad implications.
In a blog post by Scott Winship and Donald Schneider at the Manhattan Institute, they argue that the liberal argument that inequality blocks mobility is not well supported. To do that, they show simple bivariate correlations between single motherhood rates and immobility across U.S. labor markets. Their point is that, if you want to use that simple bivariate standard, you can just as well — but better — argue that immobility is caused by single motherhood rather than by income inequality, because the correlation is very strong. For their exercise they use data from the Equality of Opportunity Project, which is freely available here.
In a series of tweets, Winship clarified his point:
point wasn’t to highlight single parenthood—point was to show where low evidentiary standards on left can take you … look, single motherhood may very well be a big problem for mobility. Inequality might too…. but the left has to be held accountable when they make bad arguments skewing policy debates… I clearly wrote that correlations shouldn’t constitute reason for getting worked up about single moms
I take him at his word on his intentions, but those with well-documented patterns of less scrupulous behavior are not so scrupulous, and so the post was bad. Despite a disclaimer about not reading causation from correlation, they also wrote:
In other words, a [labor market’s] prevalence of single motherhood predicts its relative mobility quite well all by itself. … the relationship between single motherhood and mobility holds up in all of these analyses. … On the basis of these charts, rather than a new Washington Center on Equitable Growth housed at CAP and devoted to discovering the damages that income inequality inflicts, the left should have started a Washington Center on Single Motherhood.
Again, my only dog in the fight is fighting against the easy right-wing causal association of single motherhood with bad outcomes. The Heritage Foundation, Scheider’s employer, is particularly egregious in this, as I’ve occasionally documented (here and here, e.g.)
So here’s a quick debunk on that. A simple glance at the map from the Equal Opportunity Project will tell you that race is involved here, but it didn’t come up in Winship and Schneider’s post:
So let’s just look at the relationship between immobility, single motherhood and race. (Immobility here is measured by the effect of family income on children’s incomes. Higher scores are bad.)
So first, here is the relationship between population percent Black and immobility for the 100 largest metro areas, with the larger ones shown as bigger dots:
That relationship is quite strong: the higher Black population proportions are strongly associated with immobility. But so is the single motherhood relationship, as Winship and Schneider reported. So, we turn to the obvious tool, a multivariate regression. Here are two models, the first with just single motherhood — in effect, the Winship and Schneider result — and then a model with proportion Black added. Both are weighted by population size.
This shows that the association between single motherhood rates and immobility is reduced by two-thirds, and is no longer significant at conventional levels, when percent Black is added to the model. That is: Percent Black statistically explains the relationship between single motherhood and intergenerational immobility across U.S. labor markets.
This is not a rigorous examination of the cause of intergenerational immobility. It is just debunking one bivariate story that is too easily picked up by the forces of bad.