Family structure is often neglected when policymakers discuss income mobility, stagnation, and inequality. But it matters a lot whether kids, especially ones in working class and lower-income families, grow up with both biological parents.
Those who don’t, writes social scientist Lane Kenworthy in his new book, Social Democratic America, fare worse on a “host of outcomes, from school completion to staying out of prison to earning more in adulthood.” W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and a visiting AEI scholar, writes that when it comes to economic mobility, the “intact, two-parent family seems to be particularly important for children hailing from less privileged homes … .” Economist Scott Winship finds the share of families with single moms predicts “quite well” mobility levels in communities. And this from the scholars at the Equality of Opportunity Project: “Some of the strongest predictors of upward mobility are correlates of social capital and family structure. For instance, high upward mobility areas tended to have higher fractions of religious individuals and fewer children raised by single parents.”
Unfortunately family instability remains on the rise, and not just among the poor. Among the nearly 60% of Americans who have completed high school, but do not have a four-year degree, a stunning 44% of children are now born outside of marriage versus 13% in the late 1980s. Among women under 30, 53% of births now occur outside of marriage.
Can these trends be reversed? Many on the left don’t think so, a belief which gives rise to a “Life of Julia” agenda where government tries to transmit the social capital that stable families once did. In Coming Apart, AEI’s Charles Murray eschews a five-point plan and instead advocates that the American upper-class “preach what they practice” and speak out in favor of marriage, as well as other virtues such as industriousness.
But if you are looking for a specific policy agenda, a 2012 report from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Institute for American Values in New York offers a bunch including eliminating marriage penalties and disincentives for the poor and unwed mothers, tripling the child tax credit, and evaluating and funding various marriage programs for at-risk couples. Along with those ideas, I would also suggest wage and relocation subsidies for the chronically unemployed. Stronger families should be at the heart of any agenda to create an America where prosperity and human flourishing are maximized.