Wisconsin Ranks 14th in Attempt to Foretell Social Mobility

by | Dec 26, 2023 | News

By Patrick McIlheran

Index uses existing measures of economy, social capital and other factors to predict opportunity; we trail Minnesota but beat Illinois

A new study predicting which states are best equipped for social mobility places Wisconsin at 14th.

That puts the Badger State behind second-place Minnesota and Iowa (12th place) but ahead of Indiana (21st), Michigan (30th) and Illinois (40th). The study ranks Utah first among states and Louisiana last.

The study, “Social Mobility in the 50 States,” was published this month by the Archbridge Institute, a Washington-based policy organization focused on reducing barriers to opportunity.

The lead author, Justin Callais, is an economics professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He has previously examined the connection between social mobility and economic factors, such as a place’s business environment or regulatory regime. Other scholars have looked at the effects of education or family structure, still others the legal environment or social capital. Callais said the aim of the project was to gather in one place the disparate data. The paper uses about 40 surveys and indices, most published by other nonprofits or federal agencies.

The idea wasn’t to measure mobility but to foretell it.

“Our index, we think, is going to predict mobility,” he said.

Meanwhile, the number of measures helps capture “what states are doing the most broad-based or holistic approach,” he said.

Hot topic

The subject of social mobility — roughly, how likely people from poorer families are to move up the income scale during adulthood — has been in the news in recent years. A prominent Harvard University economist, Raj Chetty, garnered attention for a 2014 study measuring the likelihood of such a climb and gauging variations from place to place. Metropolitan Milwaukee ranked poorly — second worst, Chetty told the U.S. Senate in testimony — although on a finer, county-by-county scale, the problem is confined to Milwaukee County itself.

The Archbridge Institute study makes possible the comparison of contiguous states such as 14th-ranked Wisconsin and second-ranked Minnesota in a variety of ways.

Wisconsin comes out slightly ahead on measures related to the economy and the rule of law, taxes, regulations, wages and land use. Wisconsin is less likely to engage in “predatory state action,” meaning it ranks much better than Minnesota on measures such as the Institute for Justice’s rating of civil forfeiture procedure.

Wisconsin also outranks Minnesota — eighth compared to 10th place — on educational quality and freedom, but it is well behind — 18th place compared to sixth — on a set of measures of parental engagement and family stability.

Parental engagement is measured with three questions from a federally run survey: How often do parents read to their children, how often does the entire family eat a meal together, and how often do parents attend a child’s activities outside the home. Family stability is measured with Census data on the share of births to unmarried mothers and the percentage of families headed by a single parent.

Wisconsin also falls behind on “social capital,” which includes measures of attendance at community events, neighbors reporting doing a favor for each other, or the proportion of low-income people who have friends with above-median income. Other measures gauge charity — how many residents give charitably, how many are in congregations, how many volunteer, how much of a hindrance are a state’s regulations are on those who start or operate nonprofits. Here, Minnesota is near the top among states, at sixth, while Wisconsin is near average at 18th.

Indirect control

Callais recognizes that the things being measured have different time horizons. Tax rates affect location decisions in the next year, while “children’s education will take a few decades to actually have an effect,” he said.

And not all of it is in government’s purview. “There are things that policymakers can control, like regulations and judicial environment,” he said, but “they can’t do much about community engagement.”

Though, he says, there are indirect effects. Anti-poverty programs’ structure is one: “Do you make it easier to get benefits if people aren’t married?” he said. That isn’t people’s only consideration or even necessarily their main one on whether they will marry, but it can make a difference to those on the fence.

Similarly, state policy can’t necessarily make Wisconsinites more charitable, but policymakers could improve our mediocre ranking — 29th — in the Philanthropy Roundtable’s ratings of state regulations on charities. If it’s easier to start a charity, Callais points out, more people who are inclined to organize their neighbors to do good will carry through.

Callais said that Archbridge plans to keep the rankings updated — perhaps annually, if enough of the underlying datasets are similarly updated.

Patrick McIlheran is the Director of Policy at the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.

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