Report

Family Structure and the Economic Mobility of Children

quick summary

Observers have long debated the importance of growing up with two parents for the  economic opportunities it may afford children. Family Structure and the Economic Mobility of Children used a dataset that has tracked parents and their children since the late 1960s to explore the question of how children's economic mobility may differ based on their parent's family structure during childhood.

The report, co-authored by Thomas DeLeire of the University of Wisconsin and Leonard M. Lopoo of Syracuse University, compared the economic mobility outcomes for children who were born to single mothers, divorced parents, and continuously married parents.

Key Findings:

The results, which compare parent and child incomes measured at similar ages indicate the following:

Divorce is particularly harmful for children's mobility:

  • Relative Mobility: 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.
  • Absolute Mobility: Among children who start in the bottom third, 74 percent with divorced parents exceed their parents' family income when they reach adulthood, compared to 90 percent of children with continuously married parents.      

 Divorce appears to have more of an impact on the absolute mobility of African-American children than it does on white children:

  • Among African American children who start in the bottom third of the income distribution, 53 percent of those with divorced parents exceed their parents' income in adulthood, compared to 87 percent with 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)

The report also highlights the striking differences in economic mobility outcomes for white and African American children, but finds that family structure does not fully explain these differences.