Union-Dense Communities Help Kids Achieve the American Dream

Children growing up in parts of the country with high levels of unionism not only make significantly more money as adults, but are also more likely to be more prosperous than their parents, according to a study released last week.

Researchers from Harvard, Wellesley and the Center for American Progress, in their work, “Bargaining for the American Dream: What Unions do for Mobility,” studied a phenomenon known as intergenerational economic mobility: the idea that, regardless of a person’s background, an individual could work hard, transcend poverty and ultimately have a better life than his or her parents did.

The concept of economic mobility is at the crux of the American dream, but rising levels of economic inequality and stagnating wages have made it harder and harder to achieve. For millions of American workers, longer hours and higher levels of productivity have failed since the 1970s to ensure that they or their children have a chance at a better life.

One of the key factors in predicting economic mobility, the study found, is a community’s level of union membership. This is true not only for the children of union members themselves, but also for all children in an area where rates of unionism are higher.

“Unions generally advocate for policies that benefit all working people,” the study finds, and because unions are both civic-minded and highly engaged in their communities, they are powerful agents in affecting political change.

Issues that unions back, like raising the minimum wage and increasing spending on schools and other public services, ultimately help all workers and their children.

This trend holds true, even when the researchers took into account other factors that might influence mobility, like race, types of industry and even parents’ incomes.

Right-wing politicians like Republican presidential candidates Chris Christie and Scott Walker continue to wage war on labor unions, making it harder for workers to organize and for existing unions to advocate on behalf of working people.

However, if state and local governments are genuinely committed to increasing economic mobility and expanding access to the American dream, “a serious policy agenda aimed at boosting intergenerational mobility must include policies that will increase the bargaining power of workers,” the study concludes.


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