Want your kids to achieve the American dream? Join a union.

In the land of opportunity there was once the promise that your children would do at least as well as you. Not so anymore, at least not for everyone. But it turns out your union card may be the best ticket to ensuring your children do have that chance.

The Center for American Progress recently released a report, Bargaining for the American Dream, that finds children do better, including earning more as adults, when they come from union households. And the chances of children rising out of the bottom income levels increase when they have a union parent at home, which then increases intergenerational mobility. In short, where there are unions, there is opportunity.

The CAP authors noted how unions advocate for policies that benefit all working people, like investments in schools and public services, policies that may especially benefit low-income parents and children.

“This report puts the science behind what we already know, that unions are good for families,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “Better wages, better benefits, more stability – these are all things kids need.” 

Indeed, union density is one of the strongest predictors of an area’s mobility, or chance to move up the income ladder. This holds even when controlling for other factors like race, type of industry and inequality. Even the International Monetary Fund said that stronger unions lead to less inequality.

Additionally, an article in the American Sociological Review found a link between inequality and the strength of unions.

"We controlled for all of the major factors generally cited by researchers as contributing to inequality. Still, union decline and the presence of Republican presidents remained the most important explanations for income inequality," said David Jacobs, co-author of the study and professor of sociology at The Ohio State University. "Even education wasn't nearly as important as union decline."

For poor families, the union advantage becomes even more significant. Low-income children rise higher in the rankings when they grow up in areas with high union membership. This relationship, the Center for American Progress authors state, is at least as strong as the relationship between mobility and high school dropout rates – something considered to be one of the most important measures of economic mobility.

The authors note that being in a union does not by itself directly make someone’s child do better and earn more money. But they did find ample evidence that a strong relationship exists between unions and the ability of families to thrive, and that it lasts for generations.

“I know what it’s like to live in a family where the breadwinner has no union protection,” Denis Hamill wrote in an op-ed for the New York Daily News. Hamill is the son of a former New York Local 3 member.

“He had no paid sick leave or health benefits. His factory had scant heat in winter and no cooling system in summer. If you complained, you were fired.”

Once the factory was unionized, things changed – and for the better.

“He received an immediate raise, vastly improved working conditions, job security, paid sick days, time and a half for overtime, paid vacation and a pension plan. … The year after my father became a Local 3 man, we had our first-ever vacation, in a bungalow in Keansburg, N.J. The brotherhood of my dad’s union lifted my family out of tenements and housing projects into the middle class. Before every Thanksgiving dinner, my father would look over the bounty and raise a toast to ‘Local 3 President Harry Van Arsdale Jr.’”

Unions Reduce Inequality

Unions are even good for nonunion families. The CAP report finds the more union households, the better that area’s children do regardless of their parents’ union status.

The authors note that unions generally push wages up for everyone, not just members. By having more union jobs available, a child from a nonunion household has a greater chance of joining one as an adult. And unions advocate for policies that benefit all working people.

Considering recent findings from the Economic Policy Institute on the importance of increasing wages to alleviate poverty, it seems as though increasing union density could be an effective means for doing just that.

EPI noted that 63 percent of those in poverty are already working, with 44 percent working full-time. And many safety net policies are tied to having a job, like the Earned Income Tax Credit and employer-provided health care. 

“No one who works, especially full-time, should be stuck in poverty,” Stephenson said. “That’s one of the bedrock principles unions have been fighting for all along. A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.”

The EPI and CAP findings support a number of other studies that show the impact of poverty on a person’s ability to function, as well as how unionization shrinks the gender and racial wage gaps.

It’s not an overstatement to suggest that when someone is poor, they suffer financially, emotionally and mentally. Researchers have found that when low-income people are asked questions about financial hardships, their cognitive performance drops. They are intellectually taxed to a point that is equivalent to losing 13 IQ points, or an entire night’s sleep. This is also comparable to the cognitive difference between chronic alcoholics and normal adults.

Additionally, the Urban Institute has found that income instability negatively affects children’s development – socially, emotionally and intellectually. And the effects of poverty can stay with them into adulthood.

Union membership alone can’t make children do better, but since union households make more money and are more likely to have health care, it can tip the odds of success in your favor. And union jobs tend to be more stable, something that also benefits children.

Regarding gender, poverty rates are higher for women than they are for men, making the union advantage for women even more important. Women in unions earn more than their nonunion counterparts and the gender pay gap is smaller.

The union advantage also benefits people of color, who are overrepresented in poverty statistics.

“Eradicating poverty can’t be solved by collective bargaining alone, but it certainly seems to have a pretty big role to play,” Stephenson said.