As expected, President Obama spoke about mobility and illegal immigration at his State of the Union speech Tuesday night. Disappointingly, he ignored growing academic agreement on what it takes for Americans, including those of Hispanic origin, to have a shot at the American Dream.
Basically, a child’s mobility—his or her ability to rise economically—is strongly (and negatively) correlated to being raised by a single parent, the absence of a strong community with intact families, and lack of access to quality education.
There are other important elements, such as a strong work ethic and the habit of saving, but these are often functions of the first three.
These are the issues that will affect the ability of the nation’s 45 million legal Hispanics, and those who will become legal in the future, to get on the ladder of success.
The emotional debate over what to do with illegal immigrants has to do with many things but little with, say, illegitimacy, or the availability of school choice.
This we can glean from rising out-of-wedlock rates plaguing Puerto Ricans and Cuban-Americans, two groups who because of their special status are never illegal.
How the growing disruption of the family in America has affected Hispanics is a growing field of academic study.
Nor will any of the president’s State of the Union list—pre-K education; “equal pay”, raising the minimum wage or extending unemployment benefits—address the real drivers of upwardly mobility.
On what it takes to succeed in America we now have that most rare of things: a growing consensus. When you have three Washington think tanks, The Heritage Foundation, Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute, all singing from the same song sheet it is time to step back with awe.
To this rough, evolving agreement was added last week the National Bureau of Economic Research, a non-partisan think tank that has been around since the 1920s and which is headquartered in Cambridge, Mass.
A 61-page paper heavy on charts and regression analyses and co-written by Raj Chetty of Harvard and Emmanuel Saez of Berkeley—not exactly Bill Buckley of Greenwich, Connecticut—discovered some interesting things.
“The strongest predictors of upward mobility are measures of family structure, such as the fraction of single parents in the area,” it said. “Children of married parents also have higher rates of upward mobility if they live in communities with fewer single parents.”
There was also this: “high upward mobility areas tend to have higher fractions of religious individuals and greater participation in local civic organizations.”
And this: “We find … no systematic correlation between mobility and local labor market conditions, rates of migration or access to higher education.”
This growing consensus seems now to include people across the political spectrum, except for the left wing of the Democratic Party, to which unfortunately the president of the United States belongs.
President Obama, abandoned by his father himself, spoke with feelings early on in his presidency about the need for a father in the home. However, in a nod to the left of his party, for whom talk of staying married and not having children out of wedlock is anathema, he has all but ceased mentioning the subject.
As for community, the president sometimes presents us with stark choices between savage individualism at one end and the nanny state at the other.
He would do better to remember that a vibrant community is key to mobility and that it is comprised of Boy Scouts, churches or sports clubs, all organized by individuals on their own volition and acting independently of government.
And in education, the president’s decision to stand with the teachers unions in opposition to school choice has disappointed some who are with him in other spheres, such as Washington, D.C. politician Kevin Chavous and Fox News political analyst and author Juan Williams. Instead, Tuesday night he appeared to double down on his support for the failed Head Start Program.
The president entered office boasting in his first inaugural that he would “restore science to its rightful place.” If he considers the social sciences to be a science, he should have used his speech to meaningfully address the fundamental drivers of immobility. Instead there was a deafening silence. Family stability, a strong civil society and educational choice would do wonders for those at the bottom.