Economic Mobility, The American Dream and Biggest Mistake


This post is a reflection and addition to the Medium post Q&A with Dr. James Heckman, Archbridge Insitute. I recommend reading the Q&A first for context.

I recognize it was a few Q&A questions (small sample size) addressing a broad and complex topic so I don’t want to overly attach or infer Dr. Heckman’s assertions as I’m sure he would agree it is far more nuanced an issue for anyone to make broad and sweeping generalizations. It’s a worthy topic and, in line with the Q&A broad assertions, I will add to the narrative with an additional broad assertion.

Let’s assume, however, one were to agree with the macro-assertion of Dr. Heckman regarding a main inhibitor to income and social mobility is the breakdown of the corporate family (early US history) and of the nuclear family (1920–1960s). According to the interview, “Dysfunctional families lead to dysfunctional children”, it’s politically incorrect and suppressed to discuss the reasons why, and schools can only partially compensate for the dysfunction.

We’d all love to learn what the politically incorrect things are that can’t be said or discussed in order to understand the positioning and viewpoint.

Assigning veracity to Dr. Heckman assertions, I’m not convinced setting a goal of recreating, or returning to, the prominence of nuclear families is realistic, or necessary, for increased or improved social or economic mobility.

The difference in macro-economic changes from 1920–1980 versus 1980-to-today are vastly different. The federal economic policies and regulations are also very different. It’s just as possible the nuclear family has no causative effect relative to social and economic mobility as it is to assert that it is the primary reason.

It’s an easy and convenient narrative given one’s societal and life predisposition to buy into. It’s also easy to produce data and build charts, trend lines and graphs connecting the death of the nuclear family to the decrease in economic mobility because they would easily correlate over the time period in discussion. Unfortunately, it’s most likely too easy and too convenient. The data shows correlation but I find it to be a weak causation argument without the inclusion of other planes and analyses.

Let’s assume the assertion is correct however, and there is causation between the nuclear family degradation and economic mobility breakdown. If that’s true, and this may be where the politically incorrect statements lie, the question is, “why?”. What caused the rapid decline in the nuclear family? If we could directionally agree on the root causes, we could have a rational conversation on solutions on what to do about it in line with today’s societal makeup that doesn’t revolve around a nuclear family at its core.

We transitioned from a corporate family to a nuclear family just fine. It seems we didn’t transition from a nuclear to post-nuclear “family” well (as it relates to broad economic mobility).

We can easily argue the great and lasting benefits of a nuclear family focused society.  It also doesn’t require much effort to list problems and inherent negatives of the confines and structures of a nuclear family. Societies are always changing. It’s up to community leaders (parental, political, educational, corporate, religious, societal, etc.) to adapt and preserve what needs to be preserved while also injecting what needs to be injected, in a new way, in line with new societal constructs.

To add to the discussion, I will submit a modified alternative I’ve thought studied and pondered for more than 20 years in reference to Dr. Heckman’s statement on the mitigated role of schools in combating family dysfunction.

In purpose of ensuring our children are growing up with qualities that lead to a joyful, prosperous and meaningful life outside of a nuclear family construct, it was (which we didn’t do), and is (even more so today because we didn’t to it earlier), important to build and implement new societal scaffolding around the rearing of children. It’s possible we can make society work just as well, or even better, within a “new family” construct if we had a vision and a plan of what the future holds and acted accordingly.

The biggest problem is we haven’t had a vision for America, families, individuals and children for the past 50 years. We’ve been living in a country without a societal and political vision or strategic plan combined with a lack of political will and confidence to address our fundamental problems. This has happened during a critical American time period, given the velocity of change and mass disruption, where we needed a vision and strategic plan for society. For all intents and purposes, our societal leaders have been asleep at the wheel for five decades, with each decade the depth of sleep getting deeper to the level of comatose we currently reside in.

I trace a key moment in American history to 1962 when the Supreme Court removed religion from public schools (Engel vs. Vitale; Abington School District vs. Schempp) when we started to see a rapid degradation of morality, character-based values and, ultimately, the nuclear family.

This is not to say that the Supreme Court ruling was in error. It was the right decision based on our Constitution. But the biggest mistake in the American 20th century was that we abruptly ripped religious-based curriculum and teachings out of our public schools and didn’t replace it with character, moral, principle and integrity-based curriculum taught in a non-secular manner.

A child spends between 50% and 60% of their waking day interacting and learning inside of a school-based environment for 70% of their year. To believe this time and construct didn’t, doesn’t or can’t have a deep impact on a child’s function is difficult to believe. After all, children learn as much developmentally from their peers as they do from their teachers and their parents. I agree a strong family foundation is helpful, supportive and a strategic advantage to a child, but we have a collective societal responsibility and obligation to optimize the time spent outside of the home if our goal is to have a healthy, well-functioning society and successful future.

It was incumbent on societal, political, educational and religious leaders at the time to recognize that removing character and integrity-based curriculum from a child’s day and reducing it to nothing more than “The three Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic” was grossly negligent to a child’s psychological and emotional development. Since 1962, we’ve sent our children in their most formative years, for the majority of their day, to an institution devoid of principle-based education.

Is it any wonder we have seen a degradation on virtually every moral and principle societal-based measuring stick during this time frame?

This one Supreme Court decision, combined with lack of vision and ineptitude from national and community leaders, has led us to the place we are today: a society filled with deficits equal to, or greater, than our economic deficit in morality, values, principles and integrity. This, above and beyond any other factor, meaningfully contributed to the death and decay of the nuclear family.

I believe it’s incorrect to say the demise of the nuclear family caused the dysfunction in children and society today. Rather, it was the lack of leadership, character-based education, principle-focused curriculum and peer-based learning which led to the destruction of morals, discipline and character which, in turn, caused the death of the nuclear family.

As a country, we have many important problems and issues that will need to be fixed, cleaned up and resolved over the next 50 years. Although many problems could make a rightful claim to the top spot, for me, I believe it starts with making amends for this original sin starting with a focus on our children and the need to build strong developmental scaffolding around them in line with ‘true north’ principles. We will attempt to “reprogram” some of the adult population but, on many levels, we’re past that point. Our greatest ROI will be focusing on the next generations.

The mental, emotional and physical health of our country depends on us finding new, visionary constructs and curriculum that lays a moral and principle-based foundations that nurture what it means to live a life worth living, a life of meaning, and a life we can be proud of.


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Shawn Riegsecker

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