Sean SpeerPolicy-makers need to focus more on creating strong, stable families -- the key to increasing social mobility -- rather than simply redistributing money, writes Sean Speer.

By Sean Speer, Dec. 5, 2016

Inequality, social mobility, and economic opportunity animate so much of our politics. Just check the headlines. These issues are increasingly characterized not only as economic and political issues but also moral ones.

Yet for all of the ink spilled about the need for a fairer and more just society, the prevailing solution seems to be more redistribution.

There are limits to redistribution however. Not only can it become an impediment to economic growth, it can soon amount to little more than a wealth reshuffling that fails to create the conditions for broad-based opportunity.  

A real opportunity agenda would start with the family. Herein lies the potential for a bridge between progressives and conservatives.  

Strong, stable families are the foundation for economic and social mobility. This is far from a right-wing slogan. It’s the conclusion from a considerable body of social science from across the intellectual spectrum.

A real opportunity agenda would start with the family

The key takeaway is: economic inequality is at least in part a symptom of social inequality that stems from different family backgrounds and circumstances. Personal responsibility matters. But birthrights are critical.

This will make sense to readers. It’s often evident in our own lives. My personal story is marked by the fortuity of having good and loving parents and grandparents who not only had the means to provide opportunities but also served as positive role models.

And I’m hardly alone. While Canadian research finds that the link between one’s family background and economic social outcomes isn’t as strong as in the United States, it’s still a critical part of the overall story.

Consider, for instance, that marriage rates among the wealthiest “remained remarkably stable” over a 30-year period between 1976 and 2011 and yet fell for low- and middle-income Canadians.

New data show the so-called “one per cent” of income earners are 35% more likely to be married than the bottom 50% of earners.

The risk is that the built-in advantage of strong, stable families for some perpetuates fewer opportunities and more inequality for others.  

The question, then, is what can we do about it?  

An anti-inequality policy agenda should put strong, stable families at the centre. Families are a basic building block of our society and we have a collective interest in supporting them.

There are certain planks in a pro-families agenda that could find broad-based support even among progressives and conservatives. Direct transfers to families to offset child-care costs, greater labour policy flexibility for working parents, and a tax and transfer system that reflects the cost of raising children ought to be part of an overall anti-equality and pro-opportunity plan.

The risk is that the built-in advantage of strong, stable families for some perpetuates fewer opportunities and more inequality for others.

Progressives say that they are determined to reduce wealth inequality. But too often their solutions treat the symptoms rather than the “root causes.”

Conservatives say they want to promote economic opportunity. But too often their vision overlooks a role for government to equalize opportunity and promote behaviours and institutions that produce broad-based social benefits.

Both sides of the intellectual and political spectrum therefore need to move past talking points and entrenched positions.

A policy agenda that seeks to strengthen and sustain families should be at the centre of any plan to reduce inequality and promote opportunity. It’s something that progressives and conservatives should agree on.  

Sean Speer is a Munk senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute