Union Membership in a Community Boosts the Life Chances of Children

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The New York Times reported a new study showing the value of union membership in boosting academic achievement.

Not only does union membership raise the wages of working people, which means a better standard of living for children, but it leads to policies that help schools and children.

It is well established that unions provide benefits to workers — that they raise wages for their members (and even for nonmembers). They can help reduce inequality.

A new study suggests that unions may also help children move up the economic ladder.

Researchers at Harvard, Wellesley and the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, released a paper Wednesday showing that children born to low-income families typically ascend to higher incomes in metropolitan areas where union membership is higher….

Their most interesting explanation is that unions are effective at pushing the political system to deliver policies — like a higher minimum wage and greater spending on schools and other government programs — that broadly benefit workers. Perhaps not surprisingly, three cities that appear to reflect the union effect — San Francisco, Seattle and New York — are all jurisdictions where the minimum wage is rising substantially (though for New York it is only for workers in fast-food chains.)….

It’s important to emphasize that the study does not establish causality — the authors can’t prove that unions are driving the improvement in mobility. For that matter, they don’t attempt to. The finding establishes only that, in their words, “mobility thrives in areas where unions thrive….”

And that, in turn, suggests something potentially important, though equally speculative, about the effects of unions more broadly: Higher rates of unionization may give rise to certain norms that instill a greater sense of agency in workers.

For example, people who belong to unions are generally aware that they have certain rights in the workplace and are encouraged to speak up if they believe they’ve been mistreated. It’s the kind of norm that could leach out into a broader population — to both union members and their nonunion peers — if unions are sufficiently visible and active, which could in turn help boost economic mobility.

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