President Obama covered a large number of important topics in his speech yesterday. He concentrated on America's stagnant economy, high degree of inequality, and low level of social mobility and touted many policies aimed at addressing those problems.
By my count, he named at least 15 such policies: raising the minimum wage, strengthening anti-discrimination law, enacting immigration reform, simplifying the corporate tax code, streamlining regulations, improving education, investing in research, expanding access to apprenticeships, decreasing college tuition costs, providing universal pre-school, strengthening unions, revitalizing troubled communities, supporting the long-term unemployed, revamping retirement, and continuing to implement the Affordable Care Act.
But besides a brief mention of absent fathers and a nod to the communal sources of a strong economy, Obama did not explore how family structure has contributed to---and could potentially help to ameliorate---the economic problems he deplores. Here's why he should add strengthening families to his anti-inequality and pro-mobility agenda.
First, researchers believe that changes in family structure from married two-parent families to divorced or never-married single-parent families account for somewhere between 15% and 40% of the recent rise in income inequality. That means marriage is far from a panacea for economic inequality; however, it's a contributing factor, and people at all income levels can reap financial and personal gains from getting married.
Second, family structure contributes not just to economic inequality but to economic (im)mobility, according to Pew's Economic Mobility Project. In a 2010 report, Pew researchers explain the importance of parents' income levels and then note:
Characteristics of families, including such diverse factors as parenting style, parental aspirations, and the neighborhoods in which families live, contribute to the formation of children’s human capital. In particular, the structure of the family in which a child grows up could have as large an impact as income, or larger, on subsequent economic outcomes.
Because family structure affects children's educational attainment, teen pregnancy rates, and other life outcomes, this should hardly come as a surprise. While most children, regardless of family structure, manage to exceed their parents' income level in absolute terms, the Pew report concluded that "children of divorced mothers or who were born to unmarried mothers are less likely to be upwardly mobile in relative terms than are children of continuously married mothers."
At the end of his speech yesterday, President Obama mentioned the role of parents, civic organizations, religious leaders, and businesses in rebuilding an economy of open opportunity. Next time, he should also mention marriage.