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Stronger unions must be part of the national agenda

Lawrence H. Summers

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Sept. 11, 2015

Earlier this week,­ I participated in a Center for American Progress forum where a new study on unions and social mobility was released. The study, by my Harvard colleague Richard Freeman and collaborators, showed a significant correlation across American metropolitan areas between the extent of union membership and social mobility. Freeman, who based his research on data in the famous studies of Raj Chetty and his collaborators, also showed that the children of union members earn higher wages and are healthier than other children.

This is important work. From Ted Cruz to Bernie Sanders, there is agreement across the political spectrum that equality of opportunity is an American ideal — that Thomas Jefferson was right in saying that America should be an aristocracy of talent. Yet equality of opportunity in the U.S., no matter how measured, lags behind other countries and certainly has not progressed over the last several decades.

Chetty’s celebrated “equal opportunity map,” reproduced below, shows that there are no grounds for fatalism. Different parts of the U.S. deliver very different levels of social mobility, while all in the same global economy, with the same technology, and the same increasing proclivity of able men and women to marry each other. There is nothing immutable about the existing inadequate level of equal opportunity.


This map shows the average percentile rank of children who grow up in below-median income families across areas of the U.S. (absolute upward mobility). Lighter colors represent areas where children from low-income families are more likely to move up in the income distribution.

The map demonstrates that equality of opportunity is particularly bad in the old confederacy and particularly good in some of the old bastions of abolitionism. It is not therefore surprising that unions, which were concentrated in the North, turn out to be correlated with equal opportunity. More impressive is the research result that looking across families, fathers who are union members have children who earn at least 15 percent more than those who are not in union families, and that this stands up even with various control variables added.

Read the rest on Wonkblog.

Map of the day

President Obama announced Thursday that the United States would aim to accept 10,000 refugees from Syria in the next year. This map shows where recent refugees have settled in this country. Jeff Guo has more at Wonkblog.


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