The Agenda

How Family Structure Shapes Life Chances

The Pew Economic Mobility Project has issued a new report on how family disruption impacts economic mobility. You won’t be surprised to learn that parental divorce has a deleterious impact on upward mobility for children, but some of the findings are quite surprising.

Among children who start in the bottom third of the income distribution, only 26 percent with divorced parents move up to the middle or top third as adults, compared to 42 percent of children born to unmarried mothers and 50 percent of children with continuously married parents.

The gap between children born to unmarried mothers and the children of continuously married parents is smaller than I’d expect, though I wonder if children of continuously married parents are more likely to move up to the top third. I’m also curious as to the number of children of continuously married parents who start in the bottom third of the income distribution: married couples are overrepresented in the top third of the income distribution and underrepresented in the bottom third, and so it could be that we’re drawing on a sample of continuously married parents that faces a number of other challenges, including limited English proficiency and educational attainment.

Interestingly, the gap is far wider among African American families.

Among African American children who start in the bottom third of the income distribution, 87 percent with continuously married parents exceed their parents’income in adulthood, while just 53 percent of those with divorced parents do.

Of course, this news report from Jessica Ravitz at CNN notes that in 2007 72 percent of African American mothers give birth out-of-wedlock, which might account for the gap. One assumes that continuously married parents are older and more educated. 

Very interestingly, there is virtually no gap between outcomes for white children of divorced and continuously married parents.

Among white children who start in the bottom third, about the same proportion of adult children exceed their parents’ income regardless of whether their parents were continuously married (91 percent exceeding) or divorced (92 percent exceeding).

I wonder about the distinctive aspects of white households in the bottom third of the income distribution with young children. How many are upwardly mobile and relatively young, the paradigmatic example being a family headed by impecunious graduate students?

We often forget that relative mobility is a two-way street. The findings on the racial gap in downward mobility are particularly interesting.

Among children with continuously married parents who start in the middle third,42 percent of African American children and 30 percent of white children fall tothe bottom.

Suffice it to say, there is a great deal of interest in the report. The encouraging news is that there is a great deal of absolute economic mobility in the United States, e.g., 80 percent of children have higher total family incomes than their parents, when we adjust for household size. Yet the picture of relative mobility isn’t as rosy:

Less than one in five children in the bottomof the parental distribution will eventually reach the top of the child distribution, andless than one in five will fall from the top of the parental income distribution to thebottom of their own distribution. There is substantially less upward mobility in relativeterms among African American children than among white children. Two-thirds ofAfrican American children who grew up in the bottom of the income distributionremain there.

I do wonder how much we can realistically expect in terms of relative mobility. The stickiness of the top third of the income distribution presumably reflects the fact that parents make a concerted effort to provide their children with the human capital they need to flourish, not to mention hard assets. This is one of the essential motivations for wealth accumulation. And if the top third is sticky, it’s hardly surprising that the bottom two-thirds will also prove sticky. So perhaps we should focus more on absolute mobility as our goal.

This framework doesn’t address the reasons why African Americans in the middle and top thirds of the distribution aren’t as sticky as their white counterparts. One wonders if this reflects different time preferences or different norms regarding the appropriate level of assistance to offer children, or some other set of pressures that contribute to downward mobility. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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