Study looks at union membership, a child’s economic future

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Children who grow up in homes where a parent is a member of a labor union appear to have a greater chance at economic success than children growing up in nonunion households, according to a new study.

“There are strong reasons to believe that unions may increase opportunity,” researchers at Harvard University, Wellesley College and the Center for American Progress, a think tank, say in their study titled “Bargaining for the American Dream: What Unions Do for Mobility.”

That opportunity can influence a child’s ability to rise above his or her economic standing, according to the study.

“First, there are the direct effects that a parent’s union membership may have on their children,” the researchers say. “Union workers make more money than comparable nonunion workers — what economists call the union premium — and when parents make more money, their children tend to make more money — which economists refer to as the intergenerational earnings elasticity.”

Other possibile factors, according to the study:

Union jobs may be more stable and predictable, which could produce a more stable living environment.

Union jobs are more likely to provide family health insurance.

According to the study, children of noncollege-educated fathers earn 28 percent more as adults if their father was in a labor union. They also attain higher education levels than their nonunion counterparts.

Just a 10 percent increase in an area’s labor union membership is associated with a 1.3 percentage point increase in the ability of a low-income child from that area to reach the top 20 percent of wage earners as an adult. The percentage increase is 4.5 percent for children in all income levels.

Previous studies have shown five factors strongly associated with upward mobility in children, including an area’s: rate of single motherhood; high school dropout rate; degree of income inequality; degree of residential segregation; and social capital, such as participation in community organizations.

Single motherhood is, by far, the strongest factor associated with a lack of upward mobility for low-income children, researchers say. Union membership is about equal to the other four previously studied factors.

The presence of unions also can benefit the upward mobility of children in nonunion households, says the study.

“It has been shown that unions push up wages for nonunion workers, for example, and these wage gains for nonunion members could be passed on to their children,” the researchers say. “Children who grow up in nonunion households may also display more mobility in highly unionized areas, for example, because they may be able to join a union when they enter the labor market.”

Also, the study says unions often advocate for policies that benefit all working people, such as minimum wage increases and increased spending on schools and public services.

The study authors note that while statistics suggest a strong correlation between unions and mobility, further study is needed before a causal relationship could be proven.

As in previous studies about upward mobility, the one focusing on unions shows Southern states lag behind the rest of the nation, probably because the South has a lower rate of union membership than other parts of the country. In South Carolina, for example, just 2.2 percent of workers are union members — second-lowest in the nation behind North Carolina’s 1.9 percent rate.

That’s not likely to change, says a Brookings Institution report that shows while unions deliver things that people want, like higher wages, union opponents have built structural barriers to labor organizing that continue to deplete membership.

Those barriers include right-to-work laws that reduce a union’s ability to collect dues.