02/04/2014 11:24 am ET Updated Apr 06, 2014

The Bottom Line On Improving Social Mobility In The U.S.

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Children of single mothers have much worse outcomes in the U.S. than children of married parents. Yet, countries with the highest levels of single parenthood have low crime and high social mobility. That is the parenting paradox. How can it be explained?

This problem was recently highlighted in a debate between Mark Shields and David Brooks in respect to recent findings about varied income inequality around the country. It turns out that if a person is born in Atlanta in the lowest fifth for income, they have only about a one in 25 chance of rising to the top fifth. If they are raised in San Diego, their chance improves to about one in eight. At present, economists do not really know why such large differences in mobility exist.

Brooks suggested that family structure is likely to be important. Shields pointed out that Denmark has very good social mobility despite being a nation where the majority of children are born outside marriage. Brooks responded that even if Danish mothers are not technically married, they still live for decades with their boyfriends.

European cohabitation versus marriage

While a clever debating point, this is not likely to explain dramatic country differences in the correlates of mother's marital status. In Denmark and other highly developed countries of Europe, cohabiting unions may look very much like marriages that lack a formal ceremony or legal contract.

Yet, there is an important difference. Cohabiting unions are shorter. This means that young children in cohabiting unions are very much more likely to experience parental separation than children of married couples.

The usual psychological explanation of this phenomenon is that marriages generally begin with a higher level of emotional commitment between the partners than is true of cohabiting unions. This is not always true of course, and it is actually fairly common for cohabiting couples to get married after living together for several years, or even after they have had offspring.

In any case, whether parental unions are stable or not, children in Europe's social democracies do much better when raised outside marriage than their counterparts in the U.S..They are less likely to fail out of school, behave in delinquent ways or swell the ranks of the unemployed.

Reducing child poverty

The real reason why parental cohabitation does not have the same damaging implications for children in Europe versus the U.S. is that it is not associated with child poverty. The reason for this is also quite simple.

Thanks to generous child support provisions of the European welfare state and vigorous enforcement of paternal support, there is relatively little child poverty and how well-supported children are has almost nothing to do with the marital status of their parents. In the U.S., of course, children of single parents are much more likely to be raised in poverty and to experience a great deal of insecurity about funds, food and crime, whilst attending bad schools in depressed neighborhoods and experiencing a lack of opportunity from diminished social capital.

The bottom line, then, is that if we want to improve social mobility in this country to what it is in Europe, then we need to do more to reduce childhood poverty. As it is, we have been much more successful at reducing poverty amongst seniors. This is good, but the priorities are backwards.

At the risk of stating the obvious, if we get rid of child poverty, then there is greater social mobility and poverty amongst the aged is less of a problem. On the other hand, reducing poverty amongst seniors does nothing for children.