Upward Mobility, Equality of Opportunity, and the Family
Collette Caprara /
Discussions about poverty and upward mobility tend to overlook a growing amount of research arguing that socioeconomic differences in America are often rooted in family structure.
They note that, as the stability of the family has steadily deteriorated, parents’ financial situation and their children’s future prospects have eroded.
Sadly, as Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, has repeatedly underscored, the incidence and impact of family dissolution has taken its greatest toll among the most vulnerable Americans: those who have the fewest resources and the lowest levels of educational attainment.
While the vast majority of births to college-educated women still take place within marriage, among those with a high-school education or less, the concept of marriage and childbearing have become disconnected. For high school dropouts, 83 percent of first births are outside marriage, and, among those with only a high school degree or some college, the rate is 58 percent.
Those single mothers are far more likely to live in poverty and undergo more life stress than married peers, but the demise of the intact family also creates lasting disadvantages for their children, who are nearly 80 percent more likely to live in poverty and less likely to succeed academically and to be burdened with substantial obstacles to upward mobility.
Wilcox recently analyzed the association between educational level and family structure with three markers of success/failure of young adults: college graduation, income in early adulthood, and non-marital parenting. He found that young men and women who came from intact, married homes are at least 44 percent more likely to earn a college degree and 40 percent less likely to parent a child outside marriage. On average, they earned nearly $4,000 more per year than peers who did not live in intact families.
In sum, he found that “young adults, especially those from less-educated homes, are more likely to successfully navigate the transition to adulthood when they come from an intact, married family.”
Concerns about equality of opportunity and the prospects for upward mobility among the next generation should motivate a concerted effort in the cultural and policy arenas to promote marriage and intact, healthy families.