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Opportunity inequality touched upon in MUC lecture

Theater II of the Memorial Union Building was filled almost to capacity this Wednesday afternoon as the annual John A. Hogan Distinguished Lecture Series welcomed University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Timothy Smeeding to the podium.

Smeeding’s lecture, “Intergenerational Mobility in an Increasingly Unequal World​,” touched upon the overarching societal issue of opportunity inequality in the United States. The ability for families, specifically children, to change social positions between generations is impacted by certain key factors: family status, parental stability, money, social institutions and role of place. 

“If you’re poor, you’re more likely to end up poor; if you’re rich you’re more likely to end up rich,” Smeeding said referring to how initial circumstances might affect kids’ abilities to move up the social ladder towards the middle class.

An overarching theme centralized in Smeeding’s lecture was the hypothesis of “Diverging Destinies.” According to Sara Mclanahan, professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University, there are certain factors in today’s society that create a divergence in the destinies of children in different socioeconomic classes. The hypothesis served as the backbone to Smeeding’s lecture as he engaged the audience with statistics and data to support his claims that parent’s marital status, maternal age of mothers and a lack of education can continue the cycle of intergenerational poverty in families throughout the country.

According to Smeeding, in order to succeed in moving up towards the middle class, a child must go through the process of having acceptable schooling, learning early basic skills like reading and writing, graduating from high school and being able to live independently with a post-secondary school degree.

The percentage of nonmarital births in the United States is highest from mothers who didn’t receive a full high school education.

“Seventy-five percent of all U.S. kids are born out of wedlock,” said Smeeding, whose research shows that kids who are born to married mothers with a high school education have a better chance at climbing their way to success.

About halfway through the lecture, Smeeding transitioned into his section regarding policies. He stated that a successful policy to address opportunity equality would satisfy James Fishkin’s “Trilemma,” of which there are three crucial values: establishing a “meritocracy” where the holding of power is selected on the basis of one’s ability, eliminating variation pertaining to any native characteristics such as race or ethnicity and only interfering with parents when the child’s safety or prerequisites for adult life are threatened.

Wrapping it up, Smeeding highlighted that “[The] specter of unequal opportunity and falling intergenerational mobility is the biggest negative social outcome of the continuing inequality boom in income, neighborhoods and parenting.”

Smeeding  followed the lecture with a Q&A session.

The audience was concerned with the possibility of instances when having a child out of wedlock could actually induce positive change and circumstances where poor kids, in less than ideal situations, would actually make it out of their families’ socioeconomic status.

Smeeding said about optimizing, “You want [people] to go down the right path before having the baby,” in order to optimize their chance of progressing intergenerationally. The key to progression, he said, is “persistence, sticking to it and adapting to your environment.”

As a professor of public affairs and economics, Smeeding has published a variety of pieces regarding the issues of social mobility across generations in the United States, and was the director of the Institute for Research on Poverty from 2008-14.

“The gift that funds the annual Hogan Lecture came from John A. Hogan, the carter professor in the economics department from 1963-74,” UNH Professor Reagan Baughman said in an email regarding the purpose of the lecture. “The goal of the annual Hogan Lecture is to bring in an expert researcher, policymaker or business leader to talk about an important issue in the American labor market.”

Baughman, one of the main organizers for the Hogan Distinguished Lecture Series, said she hoped to attract a wide variety of faculty, undergraduates and postgraduate students, as well as anyone who was interested in the subject matter.

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