Single Moms, Family Friendly Policies, and Mobility: A Response from Carter Price of WCEG

A few weeks ago, we wrote about the Washington Center for Equitable Growth issue brief “A Regional Look at Single Moms and Upward Mobility.” We are delighted to see that Equitable Growth has expanded upon their original work to provide more information about their methods and a statistical appendix. The author, Carter C. Price, provides a response to our blog and a discussion of their findings in the following.

A recent blog post from Social Mobility Memos expressed concerns about the analysis implying family friendly laws are associated with higher economic mobility in my recent brief “A Regional Look at Single Moms and Upward Mobility.” Namely:

  • Communities in New Jersey have lower mobility despite having paid family leave and other family friendly laws
  • Were my conclusions stronger than warranted given that a number of states had both family friendly policies and low intergenerational mobility among single mother-led households?

New Jersey Is an Outlier

First, concern about New Jersey’s current laws is misplaced. I was testing whether parental leave laws prior to the enactment of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 1993 improve mobility. That said, New Jersey did have parental leave laws prior to the enactment of the FMLA, which make the communities in New Jersey outliers in my analysis. The bottom line is that communities in states that had parental leave laws prior to the passage of that law tend to have higher levels of economic mobility than those that did not after controlling for the share of single mothers.

Explaining My Methodology

We have now published a statistical appendix to accompany the initial report to explain the methods and numerical results. As can be seen in the new appendix, these results are statistically significant for each of the mobility measures favored by Chetty, Hendron, Kline, and Saez in the data set from their Equality of Opportunity Project work.

Because mobility and the share of single mothers are both estimated at the commuting zone level, the number of states that register more or less mobility than expected is less important than the number of communities. The eleven states (and the District of Columbia) that had parental leave laws predating the FMLA are comprised of 118 commuting zones (out of 741 for the United States as a whole).

Steering the Focus Away from Family Structure

Additionally, the concern expressed by Reeves and Venator about New Jersey highlights a fundamental problem of focusing on single mothers. The regressions—even with the parental leave variable included—explain less than half of the variation in mobility across the country. As Pedro Spivakovsky-Gonzalez and I discussed in our more recent report, “Patterns of Economic Mobility in the United States,” there are many factors other than family structure—most notably economic factors such as inequality, growth, and unemployment or social factors such as segregation by race and income—that are strongly associated with differences in economic mobility.

I’ll reiterate the conclusions from my brief—the focus on single mothers as the cause of economic mobility tells only a fraction of the story and we should not ignore other economic and social factors. Furthermore, when conservative policymakers and commentators use this data to claim that marriage promotion is the be-all, end-all solution to declining economic mobility in the United States, they are missing a much wider range of mechanisms and sets of policies that could help improve stagnant mobility in our country.