Jacob Wackerhausen

Jacob Wackerhausen

Recent research from the Equality of Opportunity Project found that “the strongest predictors of upward mobility are measures of family structure such as the fraction of single parents in the area.”

These findings add to the growing body of data on the link between marriage and success in life.

Growing research has revealed that socioeconomic differences in America are often rooted in family structure. As the stability of the family has deteriorated in America, parents’ financial well-being has suffered, and their children’s future prospects have eroded.

Moreover, as sociologist Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, and others have documented, the impacts of family dissolution have taken their greatest toll among the most vulnerable Americans: those who have the fewest resources and the lowest levels of educational attainment.

Today, the percentage of children born to unwed mothers has skyrocketed to 40 percent, ranging from 30 percent to 70 percent among different subpopulations. Within all subgroups, those who have a college education are much less likely to have children outside marriage than peers with fewer years of education.

While the vast majority of births to college-educated women still take place within marriage, among those with only a high school education or less, marriage and childbearing have become disconnected. Among 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.

In the words of Isabel Sawhill, co-director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on Children and Families, “We are seeing a growing class divide in America in family formation. Those with less education and less income are much more likely to have a child out of wedlock.”

The divergence in family formation is linked to disadvantages that may continue through generations. Not only are single mothers far more likely to live in poverty and undergo more life stress than married peers; the demise of the intact family also creates lasting disadvantages for their children. Marriage reduces the probability of child poverty by 80 percent. Importantly, marriage connects a father with his children and his children’s mother. Fathers fulfill a unique and critical role in their children’s well-being that no welfare check can replace.

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.