Are rags-to-riches stories really the birth-right of every American?  Maybe not.  New social mobility statistics certainly aren’t supporting the theory of the ‘American Dream’ – the long claimed ability to transcend one’s circumstances and achieve greater success.  America is, in fact, less socially mobile than most developed countries. 

It is of concern to every country to try to understand the characteristics that we need to encourage in our societies to help the poor to rise and our children to do well. Social scientists are trying to discover just this to understand why America is not the ‘land of opportunity’ it should be.  Interestingly, an on-going Harvard study has found that

…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.

In 2012, according to data compiled by Kids Count, 35 percent of children in America lived in in one parent households.  Most often those families are run by a women – probably a very stressed one with little time for herself.  

It seems obvious that strong families – and therefore secure and happy children – are at the very foundation of society, and therefore at the crux of society’s ills when things go wrong.  I never understand why you don’t hear more about things society can do to encourage a committed mother and father for more children. The Harvard research team is blunt in stating that “The strongest predictors of upward mobility are measures of family structure, such as the fraction of single parents in the area”.  Other researchers, such as Lane Kenworthy, a sociology and political science professor at the University of Arizona, also agree that having just one parent makes things much harder.

The Kansas City Star, reporting on the issue, writes that other theories about a lack of social mobility include financially divided cities, missing fathers, crumbling social institutions, broken politics, emphasising that these “long-standing problems now take on a heightened urgency”.  The article further states that:

What if stable, two-parent families and financially integrated neighbourhoods are more important for mobility than nutrition programs or job training? How might communities of faith and fellowship bind neighbourhoods closer together?

Conservatives say the breakdown of the traditional family explains much of the poverty trap, providing a rationale for making it harder to divorce and easier to deny benefits to single parents.

Republican Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has organised seminars on the topic and urged policies and legislation promoting two-parent families. Conservatives have suggested caps on benefits for single mothers or grants for low-income families with two parents.

…Shauna Love of Kansas City, 29, grew up in a home without a father. She now raises two children without a spouse. It’s tough. “You definitely need two parents to raise a child,” she says. “It is so much harder by yourself.”

Findings also show that religious faith improves the likelihood your children will do well. Another case study, Mary Jo Vernon, says that education proved important to her in rising up the social ladder.  She says that the next most important thing was “My faith. My groundedness in a power greater than myself.”  Social mobility researchers aren’t completely sure why, but there is evidence that moving up the economic ladder is easier in communities organised around faith – churches, synagogues, other gathering places for worship.  Maybe one factor is that these communities’ values include helping those in need and hard circumstances.

Experts also agree that for families to do well we need to create strong communities around them.  Active engagement in community events, strong social structures in neighbourhoods, an ethic of shared sacrifice and ambition all contribute to socially mobile populations.  These factors are often present in religious groups which is another reason why religious families might tend to have children who are more well-adjusted, and therefore more likely to be socially mobile. 

Shauna Love sums up nicely when she says “It takes a village to raise a child, but remember: It’s your village. You’re controlling the village.”  Her statement puts the onus back on all of us to create strong families, support families, and build up a ‘village’ of friends and like-minded people for our children to grow up among.  It also puts the onus on people to be committed to each other before first having children and on mothers and fathers to then work on their own relationships for the good of their children.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...