- - Sunday, February 9, 2014

When the president declared in his State of the Union address that “social mobility has stalled” and “our job is to reverse these trends,” he overlooked six major findings from two equal-economic-opportunity studies recently released by Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues.

A close reading of the report’s texts, tables and figures reveals the following: 1) America remains a thriving equal-opportunity country; 2) incomes earned by the top 1 percent may help, and certainly pose no obstacle, to higher economic mobility rates; 3) teenagers should be encouraged to find a job; 4) economic mobility is sustained by active engagement in religious and civic institutions, 5) good schools foster equal opportunity, and, 6) crucially, the single-parent family is the country’s fiercest enemy of equal opportunity.

Mr. Chetty and his colleagues flatly contradict President Obama’s claim, made last December, that the United States has had a “decades-long trend [of] dangerous lack of upward mobility.”

In his State of the Union speech, he slightly revised his thesis to say that upward mobility had “stalled.” However, the scholars find no downward shift since 1980; if anything, the trend line leans slightly toward greater equality of opportunity.

That single finding, based on tax records supplied by the Internal Revenue Service, knocks into a cocked hat the president’s assertion that “decreasing mobility” poses “a fundamental threat to the American dream.”

It turns out that 1 percenters help the equal-opportunity cause. If the very rich live close by, those who start out in the bottom 20 percent group have a better chance of success. The connection is slight, but it points in a direction opposed to the conventional political wisdom.

If a child lives in a community where those between the ages of 14 and 16 are more likely to be working, the chances of getting ahead later in life improve sharply. In other words, social mobility is put at risk when the minimum wage is raised to levels that deter employers from hiring young people.

Social mobility is greater in communities where people participate in religious life and in other civic organizations. Conservatives and thoughtful liberals have long embraced these deep-seated American traditions.

Now we learn that community and religious engagement should be celebrated for its impact on equal opportunity as well as for its own sake.

Not surprising to anyone is the connection between good schools and equal opportunity — that has always been part of the American dream. The Chetty studies show that it is student test-score performance (adjusted for family income), not class size nor expenditures per pupil, that drives economic mobility.

Critically, single parenthood is the greatest menace to equal opportunity. The percentage of children in the United States growing up in single parent families has risen from 20 percent in 1980 to 30 percent in 2009, a growth rate of no less than 50 percent.

Mr. Chetty and his colleagues show that no other factor — not racial segregation, not income inequality, not even high-school drop-out rates, is anywhere near as connected to economic mobility as the number of parents in the household.

It is dead wrong — as well as racist — to claim that the percentage of families who are headed by a single parent is simply a euphemism for the percentage of the population that is black. When adjusted for other things, race has little impact on social mobility, while the one-parent household connection remains huge.

Admittedly, the Chetty team’s analysis is only descriptive, not causal, so the results do not prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the major impediment to social mobility in the United States today is the growing number of children that are being raised in single-parent families.

However, the relationship between family structure and equal opportunity is so strong that it is disconcerting the president failed to mention in his State of the Union address — not even once — the risks children face when raised in a single-parent family. Hopefully, the Chetty study will persuade the administration to rethink its position and offer ways to redesign our public policies so they encourage — not discourage — the formation of, healthy two-parent families.

He would not have to dig deeply into the conservative agenda to find some clues as to what to do: celebrate the traditional family, expect men to bear responsibility for the children they father, deplore the Hollywood glorification of the single lifestyle, support work instead of non-work, and alter the marriage-destroying welfare laws now on the books.

Still, conservatives and liberals alike should celebrate the actual degree of equal opportunity that nonetheless remains within the United States. The chances are only one in three that someone born into a family in the top 20 percent of the economic distribution will remain there.

For two out of three of those seemingly privileged children, their places will be taken by others who came from families with lesser income.

Whether that is good or bad is a matter of opinion, but it may be worth reporting that at a dinner party the other night, a group of well-informed, mostly liberal academics and their accomplished spouses thought a privileged child’s chances of remaining in the upper 20 percent were twice as good as they actually are.

Paul E. Peterson is the Henry Shattuck Professor of Government at Harvard University and is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.