Connecting the Dots: Social Mobility and Family Structure

It does not matter who you are or where you come from. In America, if you study long enough and work hard enough you can become anything.

Every American child has heard this story.

It is a shame it is not true.

Earlier this year the OECD published a report on the various economic policies implemented by its member countries during the last recession. Included was an extensive discussion of conomic mobility among its member states. The following graph expresses one of the report’s core findings:

The graph above displays the relationship between the income of any one individual and the income his or her parents across OECD member countries. This is one of the strongest indicators of social mobility. If the division of wealth within a society was truly proportional to the merit of those possessing it, the strength of this relationship would be weak, even non-existent. Those born into poverty would be able to work their way out of it; those born with riches would lose their wealth if they did not work to maintain it.

This relationship is not weak in the United States. A poor man living in Denmark, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Germany, Spain, or France is more likely to die rich than the corresponding poor man in the United States. Likewise, the American born rich is more likely to stay wealthy his entire life than his counterparts in all OECD countries except Great Britain and Italy.

If American society was at all egalitarian the OECD study would give little cause for alarm. Alas, American society is not egalitarian; the United States is notorious for the enormous income disparity found between its upper and lower classes. This disparity has solidified over the last 30 years; over this time the annual income of the upper class has increased exponentially whilst lower class income has stagnated. As the American upper class is the clearest beneficiary of the country’s plummeting economic mobility and rising income disparity, there is a strong tendency to explain these trends by examining the policies pursued by American elites.

This approach is of limited utility. While I do not dispute that the upper class has actively sought to solidify its position at the front of the trough, those who focus entirely on the actions of the elite miss the deeper structural faults that keep America’s underclass mired in a poverty trap. Even if elite manipulation was nonexistent these structural faults would pose a challenge of awesome proportions.

Please consider the following set of graphs:

Dan Lips, Shanea Watkins, and John Fleming for the Heritage Foundation, “Does Spending More on Education Improve Academic Achievement?”,  8 September 2008.

Illegitimacy Ratio Among White Americans of European Origin, 1985-1995

Jerome Cukier, “Home Alone“, OECD Factblog, 10 March 2010.

National Marriage Project. The State of Our Unions. Ed. Bradford Wilcox (Charlottesville: U of Virginia Press, 2009). p. 97.

Cassandra Cantave and Roderick Harrison for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, “Family Income“, August 1999. (Last updated December 2007).

These graphics paint a harrowing portrait of America’s underclass and its long-term potential for growth. To point to a few of the conclusions to be gleaned from their examination:

  • Wealth is a matter of education. High school graduates will make twice as much as the average high school drop-out. Thus a phrase that is becoming popular among inner-city education programs: “You will not be poor if you graduate high school and don’t get pregnant before you graduate.” 
  • However, in the United States there is a strong relationship between  school performance and class background – stronger than that found in any other OECD country! In America the children of drop-outs will in turn drop out and the children of Honors graduates will in turn receive Honors Degrees. This relationship between class background and student educational success is THE reason for America’s poor economic mobility.
  • Thus explaining America’s poor economic mobility means explaining the relationship between class background and student educational success. Raising college tuition costs account for much of the difficulty found in jumping from the middle to the upper class. America’s poorest must jump different hurdles. Their challenge is not paying for Bachelors and Masters degrees, but graduating from high school in the first place.

  • What accounts for poor student performance in the high school setting? The answer to this question is unsatisfying: there is a great multitude of factors, far too many to be adequately summarized here. However, the clearest predictor of student performance (other than social class) is family structure and stability. Students from stable mother-father households are more likely to succeed in both the elementary and secondary school settings than peers from alternate family structures. Significantly, this holds true even when race, class, and other variables of this type are adjusted for

  • This is intuitive. A single mother working two minimum wage jobs has little time, energy, or money to spend on the education of her children. Less obvious is the corollary: if the mother must work to provide for her children she has little time, energy, or money to spend on her own education. Thus the second part of the dictum, “You will not be poor if you graduate high school and do not get pregnant before you graduate.” Caring for children without the institutional support provided by a stable marriage is a poverty trap.

  • It follows that both illegitimate births and the age at which a mother first has children should be clear markers of social class. This is largely true.  In the 1980s illegitimacy rates among white women who never received more than 12 years of education and who’s family incomes were less than $20,000 prior to the year of birth approached 45% – more than 20 times the rate among the white elite. At the time the total illegitimacy rate among the white population was 11%. Today it is 28%. Charles Murray estimates that the illegitimacy rate has risen to 40% and 70% for today’s white working-class and underclass respectively. And this is just with whites – among the African-American and Latino populations both rates are higher. 
  • Data on the mean age of a mother’s first pregnancy is more difficult to find. The CDC’s annual “National Vital Statistics Report” is the most extensive study on this count. It does not relate wealth to the mean age of the mother at first birth, but it does relate the mean age of mothers at first birth to geographic location. This is a useful proxy: the state with the highest median income (New Jersey) also has the highest mean age of mothers at first birth, while the states with the lowest incomes (Alabama, Mississippi, New Mexico, Arkansas, ect.) also have the youngest mothers.

  • To summarize the relationship between education, family structure, and wealth:  poor Americans are almost always uneducated men and women from unstable families. Teasing the independent variable out of this mess is nigh impossible – all three are mutually reinforcing. Moreover, all three traits are (for lack of better parlance) highly heritable. The daughter of an uneducated, low-income, single mother will become an uneducated, low-income, single mother herself. As it directly affects educational achievement and establishes the norms upon which a child will build his or her family later in life, the key to this ‘inheritance’ is  the stability and structure of the child’s family.

  • The implications of this are worth contemplation. Over the last forty years the number of single-parent families in America has more than doubled. This expansion was largely an underclass matter. Thus the number of single-parent households has doubled but the median income of these households has not changed

  • What has changed is the potential for upward mobility among the lower class. The expansion of low-income, single-parent households has “locked” an entire generation into poverty. Pouring more money into secondary or elementary education does nothing to fix this underlying structural fault.      

This is the crisis of the American community. Poverty has existed throughout America’s history, but only with the disintegration of the lower class family has it become a perpetual condition. The United States must now cope with all the ills that plague any polity with a permanent underclass.


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